Defiant strikers get ultimatum after S.Africa mine shootings
8/19/2012 7:40:00 PM -
MARIKANA, South Africa (AFP) - Platinum giant Lonmin on Sunday ordered employees back to work at a South African mine where police killed 34 people, but miners remained defiant as a week of national mourning was declared.
The London-listed company issued an ultimatum to workers to end a wildcat strike by Monday after the worst episode of police violence since the apartheid era, which President Jacob Zuma said will be officially mourned for seven days.
Lonmin said the call to staff was "a last opportunity to return to work" at its shut-down Marikana mine where union rivalry escalated into a police crackdown and more bloodshed on Thursday after 10 people died just days earlier.
"Employees could therefore be dismissed if they fail to heed the final ultimatum," warned the world's number three platinum producer.
But miners who first downed tools at the Marikana mine on August 10 pledged to press on with their wage demands, and called the order to return to work "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's Monday deadline for miners to return to work will coincide with the start of a week-long 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.
"We must avoid fingerpointing 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 which included 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 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 poor settlements surrounding the mine held services on Sunday, with relatives milling outside the hospital to check if their loved ones had been admitted there, or to find out if they had been arrested or worse were among the dead.
Police have claimed self-defence and several probes have been launched, including Zuma announcing a judicial commission of inquiry.
A team of his ministers will also head to Marikana on Monday to "coordinate and lead all support" to grieving families.