South African police fired rubber bullets and tear gas Saturday to disperse workers at platinum giant Lonmin’s strike-hit Marikana mine in a crackdown on rising unrest in the key industry.
An AFP photographer on the scene said rubber bullets were used after hundreds of workers regrouped in a shantytown near where police shot dead 34 people last month.
Protesters threw stones at officers and set tyres alight. One man was bleeding after being shot in the arm and the side of his body.
A police helicopter kept watch from above as officers in armoured trucks clashed with workers who had earlier dispersed after tear gas was used to break up a gathering.
Police said they had also staged an early morning raid on worker hostels, seizing traditional weapons and arresting five people. “Five hundred members (officers) intervened at 2:00 am (1200 GMT) in an area with hostels where about 600 miners are residing around Marikana,” regional police spokesman Thulani Ngubane told AFP.
“We took pangas (machetes) and (other) dangerous weapons.”
The government Friday announced a security crackdown to stamp out the strife that as hit the northwest town of Rustenburg’s platinum belt and forced mines to suspend operations.
The strikes have spilled over from a bitter wage battle at world number three platinum producer Lonmin, whose Marikana operation has been crippled since a wildcat strike erupted last month. The stayaway exploded into violence that has killed 45 people in all.
The state’s clampdown is targeting the illegal gatherings and weapons that have characterised the unrest. Miners, many armed with spears and machetes, have been mobilising at mines with fiery threats of violence and further strike action.
“The aim of the operation was to make sure that we disarm and to ensure that we reclaim Marikana and we restore peace and stability in the area of Marikana,” said Ngubane of the early morning raid. “They continue to murder and kill people with the very dangerous weapons that they carry on a daily basis.”
Five workers were arrested for dealing in drugs, found after they were disarmed, police said. Seven protesters were arrested at an Aquarius Platinum mine on Friday shortly after the clampdown was announced.
On Friday, the world’s leading ferrochrome producer, Xstrata Alloys, and the fourth largest platinum producer, Aquarius, said growing protests and tensions in the area had forced the temporary halt of operations.
The world’s top platinum producer Anglo American Platinum has also closed five of its mines over safety fears after intimidation and threats of violence on staff trying to go to work.
The government warned on Friday that it will no longer tolerate the unrest on the mines. “Illegal gatherings, the carrying of dangerous weapons, incitement as well as threats of violence against anyone in the affected areas will be dealt with accordingly,” said Justice Minister Jeff Radebe.
The mining sector, the backbone of South Africa’s economy, directly employs around 500,000 people and accounts for nearly one-fifth of gross domestic product when related activities are included. It also brings in about half of the nation’s export earnings.
The labour strife has also spread to the gold sector, where 15,000 Gold Fields miners have been striking since Sunday.