Week of mourning after S.Africa mine shootings

By Sibongile Khumalo
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By Sibongile Khumalo

8/19/2012 5:40:00 PM -

MARIKANA, South Africa (AFP) - Platinum giant Lonmin on Sunday ordered employees at a South African mine where police killed 34 people to return to work, but miners remained defiant as a week of national mourning was declared.

The London-listed company issued a final ultimatum to staff to end their wildcat stayaway three days after the worst episode of police violence since apartheid, as President Jacob Zuma declared a week of national mourning.

Lonmin said the call was "a last opportunity to return to work" for employees taking part in a strike stemming from a conflict between rival unions that had already claimed 10 lives and shut down production before escalating into Thursday's bloodshed.

"Employees could therefore be dismissed if they fail to heed the final ultimatum," warned the world's number three platinum producer.

But workers who have been on strike at the Marikana mine since August 10 pledged to press on with their wage demands, and said the demand to return to work was "an insult" to colleagues who were gunned down by police.

"Expecting us to go back is like an insult. Many of our friends and colleagues are dead, then they expect us to resume work. Never," said worker Zachariah Mbewu.

"Some are in prison and hospitals. Tomorrow we are going back to the mountain (protest site), not underground, unless management gives us what we want."

Lonmin set a Monday deadline for striking employees to return to work.

That will coincide with the start of a week of national mourning announced Sunday by Zuma. Flags will be lowered to half mast and an official day for nationwide memorial services held on Thursday.

"The nation is in shock and in pain. We must this week reflect on the sanctity of human life and the right to life as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic," said Zuma.

The week will commemorate recent victims of violence, with Zuma singling out the Marikana carnage.

"We must avoid finger-pointing and recrimination. We must unite against violence from whatever quarter. We must reaffirm our belief in peace, stability and order and in building a caring society free of crime and violence," he said.

The fiery former leader of the ruling party's youth wing, Julius Malema, fanned workers' anger Saturday with a speech attacking Zuma, whom he wants voted out at the African National Congress's year-end party elections.

"President Zuma decided over the massacre of our people, he must step down," Malema, who was booted out of the ANC in April for fomenting divisions in its ranks, told a crowd.

The violence at the mine stems from a conflict between the powerful National Union of Mineworkers and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which is calling for a tripling of wages.

Thursday's crackdown left 34 dead, 78 wounded and 259 detained, and boosted the death toll to 44 after the 10 earlier deaths, including two police officers.

The violent police action has drawn parallels to the brutality seen under apartheid and sparked debate over the living conditions faced by miners, who voiced indignation at Lonmin's ultimatum.

"Are they also going to fire the ones who are in hospitals and lying in mortuaries?" asked Thapelo Modima.

"It is better to be fired anyway because we are suffering, our lives won't change. Lonmin does not care about our well-being, they have so far refused to hear us out, only sending police to kill us."

Workers say they are waiting to hear from mine bosses, whose latest ultimatum Sunday was an extension of a previous order to return.

"Tomorrow we won't return to work unless they listen to our demands of salary increases," said underground supervisor Fezile Magxaba.

"People have died, we are angry. If we return it will be like they died in vain," he said while doing his laundry at a communal tap.

Churches in the impoverished informal informal settlements surrounding the mine held intimate services.

"Many people are still scared of being seen as forming gatherings, even coming to church," a worshipper at the Independent Pentecostal Church told AFP.

Relatives of the missing mineworkers milled outside the mine's hospital to check if their loved ones had been admitted there, had been arrested or were among the dead.

Police have claimed self-defence and several probes have been launched, including Zuma announcing a judicial commission of inquiry.

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