South Africa police halt peaceful strikers' march

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By DENIS FARRELL and MICHELLE FAUL, Associated Press

RUSTENBURG, South Africa (AP) — South African police halted a peaceful march by striking miners without violence Sunday, a day after firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse illegal protesters.

Officers barricaded a main road into Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg, and persuaded about 500 miners that their march was illegal and that they should go home.

Sunday's protesters from Anglo American Platinum mines wanted to march to Rustenburg police station to demand an end to the violence against strikers. Some carried sticks, but there were none of the machetes, spears and clubs that have marked previous protests for higher wages.

On Saturday, police raided hostels at Lonmin platinum mine and collected homemade weapons. They fired rubber bullets and tear gas to force people into their homes.

It was the first police action since officers killed 34 miners on Aug. 16 in state violence that shocked the nation.

The strikes have shut down one gold and six platinum mines, destabilizing the country's critical mining sector.

Saturday's show of force follows a government vow to halt illegal protests and disarm strikers.

The secretary-general of the governing African National Congress party Sunday complained that "mining remains the bedrock of the South African economy, and yet the abject poverty and squalor surrounding mining areas remains a matter of deep concern."

Gwede Mantashe blamed both mining companies and employees for paying only "lip service" to a charter to improve living and working conditions of miners. Mining companies complain that workers use only a fraction of their living allowances to rent shacks and send the rest of the money home.

But Mantashe himself was head of the dominant National Union of Mineworkers when the charter was signed in 2004, and as such should have been leading efforts to get it enforced. In 2006 he became the first trade unionist to become a director of a Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed company, the manganese and chrome mining company Samancor. Mantashe become ANC secretary-general in 2007.

Some strikers have been demanding that the NUM leave their mines, accusing the union allied with the African National Congress of being too preoccupied with business and politics to take care of the shop-floor needs of its 300,000 members.

Several NUM shop stewards were among 10 people killed in the days preceding the Aug. 16 police shootings. And the body of another NUM shop steward who was hacked to death was found last week.

Saturday's police crackdown was condemned by the South African Council of Churches.

"Government must be crazy believing that what to me resembles an apartheid-era crackdown can succeed," said Anglican Bishop Jo Seoka, president of the Council of Churches. "We must not forget that such crackdowns in the past led to more resistance and government can ill afford to be seen as the enemy of the people that put them in power."

Seoka, who also is head of the Bench Marks Foundation that put out a damning report last month about miners' living and working conditions, said the strike had just cause and was not the work of instigators, as some have suggested.

"The problem will not go away even if this crackdown wins the present battle," he said. "The 'war' between workers who do not receive just remuneration against the enormous amounts of money paid to executives will continue to fester."

A negotiated resolution appears distant at the Lonmin platinum strike that is now in its fifth week. Workers rejected the company's offer to boost salaries by 16 to 21 percent that falls far short of strikers demands to double wages to a monthly minimum of R12,500 ($1,560).

Lonmin said Sunday that demand is "unaffordable and would result in a trade-off between wages and jobs."

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said Friday that the strikes are "extremely damaging" to the economy.

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Michelle Faul reported from Johannesburg.

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