By Zandi Shabalala
MARIKANA, South Africa (Reuters) - The president of South Africa's striking AMCU union urged its members on Wednesday to remain strong in the face of efforts by the world's top platinum firms to woo miners to end a 16-week stoppage, the longest and costliest ever to hit the sector.
"Let's stay strong. Yes it's difficult, but let's hold each other by the hand and stay strong. Onward!" Joseph Mathunjwa told thousands of strikers at a rally near the Marikana operations of London-listed producer Lonmin.
In a dramatic show of force, the strikers, many wielding sticks, roared their approval to Mathunjwa's remarks, which sent spot platinum to two-month highs over $1,470 an ounce.
Earlier, AMCU members had prevented other workers from trying to return to Lonmin's shafts, thwarting the company's efforts to end the strike.
Anglo American Platinum and Impala Platinum have also been hit by the strike over pay, which has brought to a halt 40 percent of global production of the precious metal used for catalytic-converters in automobiles.
Lonmin had been aiming on Wednesday for a "mass return" of workers. The trio of producers have said many of the strikers have signaled a willingness to accept the latest pay offer by cell phone SMS, emails and other means. It was not immediately clear how many workers tried to return to the shafts.
But Mathunjwa told the rally, held near the site where police shot dead 34 striking AMCU members in August 2102, that "the spirit of the workers will not be not be broken by SMSs."
Mathunjwa, a Salvation Army lay preacher who often evokes both God and class warfare, used typically combative language, telling the crowd that "the purpose of capital is to destroy AMCU and its members."
He later told reporters that the strike would continue as AMCU's members were still rejecting the latest wage offer.
There was a heavy police presence in the area and the national police commissioner was to hold a news conference at the Marikana police station at 1500 local time (1300 GMT).
The rival National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said its members were unable to return to work because of AMCU intimidation. Four people have been murdered around the platinum mines in the last four days, with no arrests.
The companies have been taking their latest wage offer directly to AMCU's members via SMS and radio spots after wage talks with the union collapsed three weeks ago.
Mathunjwa said AMCU was going to the labor court next week to prevent the producers from by-passing the union in this way.
The companies said they would "strongly oppose" this, saying in a statement that they "wanted to ensure that employees are fully informed of the offer, and that they are empowered to accept or reject the offer of their own free will."
The industry has long accused AMCU of using intimidation to keep its members in line, allegations it denies.
The companies are offering increases of up to 10 percent that they say would raise the overall minimum pay package to 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month by July 2017, including cash allowances such as for housing.
They say they can go no higher given rising costs and depressed prices and Lonmin's chief executive Ben Magara said on Monday restructuring and job cuts were inevitable as it posted a steep fall in six-month earnings.
AMCU had initially demanded an immediate increase to 12,500 rand in the basic wage, excluding allowances, but softened that in March to staggered increases that would amount to 12,500 rand within three or four years - still a third more than what the companies are offering in basic salaries.
The strike highlights the discontent among black miners who feel they are still not reaping the benefits of the country's mineral wealth two decades after apartheid ended.
It has also hurt already sluggish growth in Africa's most advanced economy and rating agency Moody's said on Wednesday the country's credit rating remained under pressure.
(Additional reporting and writing by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Ed Cropley and Mark Potter)