South Africa miner standoff hardens as strikes spread

Miners sing as they gather at Lonmin's Marikana mine in South Africa's North West Province. Credit: Reuters

Positions hardened in the standoff between striking miners and South African authorities today.

The government announced a crackdown on weapons and what it called "illegal gatherings" and workers at the Marikana mine rejected a pay offer dashing hopes of ending the five week dispute.

The miners, in the fifth week of a bitter strike at Lonmin, rejected a company wage offer way below their demand.

And the mine's operators said only 0.3 percent of its 28,000 workers reported for duty on Friday, a new low.

"The government will no longer tolerate illegal gatherings and brandishing of weapons in this way," Justice Minister Jeff Radebe later told a news conference.

The bigger picture is that miners themselves want a share of the profits from the minerals below the ground that make South Africa the richest country in the continent.

Video report by ITV News Africa Correspondent Rohit Kachroo.

As well as the the threat of a workers' uprising, the words of Julius Malema, the expelled ANC politician, worry South Africa's leadership.

Previously he had threatened that the miners' cause was one his supporters were prepared to die for, and with strikes spreading to platinum and gold mines too, he may be succeeding.

"They've been stealing this gold from you. Now it's your turn," he bellows through a loudspeaker at a rally for the workers.

So what started as a labour dispute has now become something far greater: a nationwide debate about the way the wealth of the mines is divided up between country's rich and poor.

The president's voice has barely featured in the debate, but to speak in fear of where the dispute might be heading.

"The illegal strikes, the incitement and intimidation will not assist workers," Jacob Zuma told his parliament.

But many argue that it was the state that started the whole affair when 34 miners were shot dead by police a month ago.

The strikers who survived the bullets, initially charged with the murder of their colleagues but since released, are now being represented by Nelson Mandela's lawyer.

George Bizos, a distinguished human rights advocate, is urging his clients to protest in a peaceful manner.

He says the police tactics of using "sophisticated firearms" is "counter-productive - it creates problems."

Industrial relations may well be beyond a short-term solution. Mine owners are refusing to give in to demands and workers are promising a national strike.