South Africa's Zuma defends clampdown on mines, denies taking sides

South African police block a march by protesting miners in Rustenburg after a security crackdown in the restive platinum belt where officers shot dead 34 strikers exactly a month ago. (photo by Alexander Joe, AFP)
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RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- South Africa's President Jacob Zuma denied Sunday his government had embraced apartheid measures in a crackdown on protesting mineworkers a month after police shot dead 34 strikers.

Zuma insisted the state was not taking sides in the spate of unrest hitting the key mining sector after ordering police raids on workers at the Marikana platinum mine amid threats of a general strike.

"Government respects the constitutional rights of Marikana residents but has to promote peace and order," the president said in a statement delivered on the eve of the annual congress of the COSATU trades union confederation.

"Government cannot allow a situation where people march in the streets carrying dangerous weapons. We cannot allow them to intimidate others or incite violence, and we also have to protect the rights of those who do not want to be part of their protests or the strikes."

Hours earlier, police blocked a march by protesting miners after a security crackdown in the restive platinum belt, where officers shot dead 34 strikers exactly a month ago.

Workers dispersed calmly after armoured trucks and armed police in riot gear stopped them from marching on a police station in the northwestern town of Rustenburg, a day after officers fired rubber bullets to disperse workers in nearby strike-hit Marikana.

"The police have blocked us. They are dispersing us. Now we are telling our people to go back to where we came from," said Gaddhafi Mdoda, a workers' committee member at Anglo American Platinum.

Workers at area mines had planned the march to protest against the police's use of force. Several people were injured by rubber bullets Saturday at platinum giant Lonmin's Marikana operation after government orders to stamp out flaring unrest across the mining sector.

Absent from the march was the usual protest gear of machetes, spears and sticks, after hundreds of officers seized piles of weapons in raids early Saturday at worker hostels.

Police raided the hostels with the support of the army, confiscating the weapons and firing tear gas and rubber bullets after Friday's announcement by the government that it will no longer tolerate the growing mines troubles.

The clampdown is targeting illegal gatherings, weapons, incitement and threats of violence that have characterized the unrest, with police telling the leaders of Sunday's protest that they needed permission for the march.

'166 people share four toilets'

Zuma, ahead of a tense COSATU congress which he is to formally open on Monday, added that worker living conditions were unacceptable and said they have a right to engage their employers.

"There are still hostels where 166 people share four toilets in some mines and that is not acceptable. Mining companies and trade unions must urgently discuss and resolve the issues."

Tensions have spilled over from Lonmin since a wage strike started on August 10 and forced shut-downs at several mines, including those of the world's top platinum producer Amplats and number-four producer Aquarius Platinum.

Anglo American, which shut its operations in Rustenberg last week, announced Sunday that it would resume work on Tuesday as the situation was calm.

Sunday marked a month since the deadly bloodshed at Lonmin, where an already deadly strike in which two police officers had been killed exploded into the police shooting on August 16, sending shockwaves around the world with its echoes of apartheid-era brutality.

A mediator in Lonmin's wage talks, which are set to resume Monday, warned the government's crackdown could lead to a "complete revolt across the platinum belt".

"Government must be crazy believing that what to me resembles an apartheid-era crackdown can succeed," said Bishop Jo Seoka, president of the South African Council of Churches.

"We must not forget that such crackdowns in the past led to more resistance," he added.

Lonmin's acting chief executive Simon Scott said that workers' demands for a 12,500-rand ($1,524, 1,161-euro) monthly wage would cost 2.3 billion rand to implement.

"This would put many thousands of existing jobs at risk and indeed challenge the viability of the business," he wrote in the Sunday Times.

"We have had our wake-up call, as has the rest of South Africa," he wrote, saying this did not mean the world's number three platinum producer had neglected its commitments.

"Rather, it is a recognition that we -- like everybody else -- now better recognize the increased scale and urgency of the problem. It will not be an easy journey."

Also Sunday, South Africa's ruling African National Congress called on platinum mines to learn from the deadly conflict and change how they negotiate with employees.