By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African President Jacob Zuma has accused the AMCU union of irresponsibility for dragging out a wage strike in the platinum sector for almost four months, telling reporters there was a risk of workers losing their jobs because of the dispute.
Zuma, who has made almost no previous direct comment about the strike, took aim at the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) on Monday, underscoring political concerns about the stoppage and its impact on Africa's most advanced economy, ahead of general elections on Wednesday.
"The union leaders have a responsibility ... to ensure workers are protected so they don't lose their jobs. You can't get into a strike that at the end the workers lose their jobs. That's your responsibility," Zuma told a news conference.
But using typically combative language and evoking class warfare, AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa lashed out at the "platinum cabal" and its "exploitation of workers."
Mathunjwa told a news conference the 15-week strike, the longest and most costly ever in South Africa's mines, would continue and no new wage talks were scheduled.
The strike at the world's top producers of the precious metal - Anglo American Platinum, Lonmin and Impala Platinum - has hit 40 percent of global production.
The prospect of a painful restructuring in the platinum sector, including steep job cuts, has made the strike a headache for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and President Zuma as he vies for a second term in office.
Jobs are a sensitive issue in South Africa, where the unemployment rate rose to 25.2 percent of the labor force, or 5.07 million people, in the first quarter of 2014 from 24.1 percent in the previous three months, official data showed on Monday.
"The very fact that you can introduce a kind of threshold that you are not prepared to move on, it says there's something wrong with AMCU," Zuma said.
AMCU is high on the ANC radar screen after it emerged as the top union in the platinum belt in 2012, having poached tens of thousands of members from the once-unrivalled National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a key political ally of the ruling party.
The companies are offering increases of up to 10 percent and other benefits that they say would raise the overall minimum pay package to 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month by July 2017.
AMCU had initially demanded an immediate increase to 12,500 rand, but softened that stance in March to staggered increases that would amount to 12,500 rand within three or four years.
Wage talks collapsed over a week ago and the producers are taking their offer directly to employees, via cell phone text messages, radio ads and public meetings in their rural home villages far from the shafts where many have returned.
Implats said on Friday two thirds of its striking miners had indicated by texts and phone calls that they wanted to accept the latest offer and return to work.
Mathunjwa said this was not true and most of the union's rank and file still supported the strike. "These underhand tactics have been a catastrophic failure and exposed the desperate attempts by this cabal to divide the workers," he said.
Mathunjwa also slammed the companies for claiming that, in the face of rising costs and depressed platinum prices, they cannot afford to raise their latest offer for work that is tough and often dangerous.
"They say our members are unreasonable with unaffordable demands. However we are baffled about what is unreasonable from asking for a living wage under extremely dangerous and back breaking work?," he said.
AMCU says its wage demands could be met if overtime for management and senior workers was scaled back.
Mathunjwa has tapped a vein of resentment among black miners who feel they are still not reaping a fair benefit from the country's mineral riches 20 years after the end of apartheid.
But the companies say they were bleeding cash even before the strike. Underscoring the industry's woes is the muted reaction of the platinum price to the strike. Spot platinum is fetching around $1,446 an ounce, little changed from its levels on the eve of the stoppage.
($1 = 10.4625 South African Rand)
(Additional reporting by Xola Potelwa and Joe Brock; Writing by Helen Nyambura; Editing by Ed Cropley and David Holmes)