Driefontein, South Africa • In a speech punctuated by the cheers of thousands of miners and the blowing of whistles and vuvuzelas, firebrand politician Julius Malema called Tuesday for a national strike in all of South Africa’s mines, encouraging the escalation of labor unrest that has already halted production at two platinum and gold mines.
Some 60 miles away, 8,000 more striking miners and their followers, shadowed by police in armored cars and helicopters, marched to a hospital to see some of the 190 miners who say they were beaten and tortured in police custody. A mining company security guard wearing a bulletproof vest told reporters the patients had been evacuated for safety reasons.
A phalanx of police and armored cars blocked marchers from the hospital.
The scene in Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg, was peaceful but tense, though strikers are threatening to kill anyone who goes to work. Miner unrest has become a central issue in South Africa since police shot and killed 34 striking miners and wounded 78 on Aug. 16 at Lonmin PLC’s platinum mine at Marikana.
On Tuesday, journalists found the body of another murdered man at Marikana, with deep gashes to the back of the neck. Police confirmed a body was found near a granite hill where strikers normally gather.
That raises the toll from violence at Lonmin’s mine to 45, including 10 people killed in the days before the police shootings — two police officers have been hacked to death by strikers, two mine security guards burned alive in their car and six shop stewards of the National Union of Mineworkers.
Lonmin said in a statement Tuesday that only 3 percent of workers had shown up.
“Lonmin condemns the ongoing intimidation and threats to life and property,” the London-registered company said. “The continuing efforts of a minority to keep the mine closed through threats of violence now pose a real and significant threat to jobs.”
Malema told striking miners at a gold mine near Driefontein that this nation’s critically important mining industry should be stopped in its tracks to force the removal of the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers, which is cozy with the power elite including South African President Jacob Zuma, Malema’s archenemy.
“There must be a national strike. They have been stealing this gold from you. Now it is your turn. You want your piece of gold. These people are making billions from these mines,” Malema said.
He was cheered by thousands of strikers who gathered in a soccer field at the west section of Gold Fields International’s KDC gold mine, carrying traditional sticks and blowing on vuvuzelas, plastic horns that the world came to know during the 2010 soccer World Cup.
Malema led the miners in chants of “Kill the boer,” a song from the anti-apartheid struggle referring to white farmers. Malema was expelled from the ruling African National Congress earlier this year for sowing disunity and failing to accept party discipline. Party leaders had criticized Malema, a former leader of the ANC’s youth wing, for singing “Kill the boer.”
Apartheid, or racist white rule, ended in 1994 with South Africa’s first all-race elections. Today, the struggle is not shaping up as white versus black but as the marginalized lashing out largely at the small black elite that has emerged in this mineral-rich country.
Miners at Marikana, some wielding machetes, sang: “Tell Zuma to stop killing us,” a reference to the Aug. 16 shootings by police.
The black president has been the focus of much of the miners’ ire.
“He must do what he promised to do,” said Aaron Thabili, a miner who supports his wife and three children with a take-home salary of 4,000 rand ($487) per month. “He knows what he promised the people of South Africa... jobs, a better life, better salaries. And we have got the right to take (vote) him out if he does nothing for us.”
Victor Botsane, a loader driver at Gold Fields, said he is striking for better pay, even though that means he earns no salary each day he’s off the job.
“If we don’t work we know we aren’t going to get paid,” he said. “But they aren’t going to get any profits.”
Malema referred to the ANC-led struggle against apartheid as he denied that his calls to make the nation’s mines “ungovernable” promotes violence.
“When we say to you we must render the mines ungovernable people think we are talking violence...they don’t know our history. We made South Africa ungovernable under the apartheid government peacefully. What you must do, you just put down the tools and stop production,” Malema said.
Some 500 strikers were marching Tuesday night on a shaft of Anglo American Platinum, Talk Radio 702 reported. But the company which produces 40 percent of the world’s platinum denied it, saying it was “all rumors.”
Malema lashed out at the National Union of Mineworkers leader, Frans Baleni, saying he earns more than 1 million rand ($122,000) a year sitting on boards of mine companies.
NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka responded bluntly: “It’s all lies.”
Malema himself is being investigated by police for fraud regarding money paid into his family trust and by the revenue service on tax payments. Police have said they are getting close to arresting Malema. Malema has said his arrest would be politically motivated.
NUM leaders support Zuma’s bid for re-election as president of the ANC at a December congress. Many miners accuse the NUM of being more concerned about politics and business than the shop-floor needs of miners who complain they do not earn enough to feed their families and send their children to school.
More than 10,000 workers halted operations since Sunday night at the west section of Gold Fields International’s KDC gold mine. The strikers are demanding the removal of NUM shop stewards and a monthly take-home wage of 12,500 rand ($1,560). Some 12,000 miners at east KDC staged a weeklong illegal strike that ended Sept. 3 to demand the removal of NUM shop stewards.