DRIEFONTEIN, South Africa (AP) — In a speech punctuated by 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 a step-up of a strike that has already halted production at several platinum and gold mines.
Some 60 miles (100 kilometers) 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 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 and a phalanx of police blocked the marchers from the hospital.
The scene in Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg, was peaceful but tense. 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 Marikana, a platinum mine owned by Lonmin PLC.
Lonmin said in a statement Tuesday that only 3 percent of workers had shown up at the shafts.
"Lonmin condemns the ongoing intimidation and threats to life and property. No business can operate in an environment where threats and intimidation are the order of the day. The continuing efforts of a minority to keep the mine closed through threats of violence now pose a real and significant threat to jobs," the London-registered company said.
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.
Malema won loud cheers when he said: "You must be treated like human beings. You must also be respected." Many of the strikers gathered in a soccer field at the west section of Gold Fields International's KDC gold mine to hear Malema carried traditional sticks and blew 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 days 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," among other things.
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 vs. black but as the disenfranchised 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.
He lashed out at the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Frans Beleni, saying he earns more than 1 million rand ($122,000) from sitting on boards of mine companies.
NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka responded bluntly to Malema's accusation: "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.
Leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers 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 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 minimum monthly 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.