By Xola Potelwa
MARIKANA, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa's ANC government pulled out at the last minute from a memorial ceremony marking the anniversary of the nation's bloodiest post-apartheid labor violence, drawing attention to the dominant party's loss of support among many mineworkers.
President Jacob Zuma's government had planned a unifying day of prayer and reflection to commemorate the killings by police last year of 34 striking platinum workers at Lonmin's Marikana mine. The deadliest incident of its kind since the 1994 end of white-minority rule, it shocked South Africans and the world.
But just hours before the planned commemoration went ahead on Friday at the mine northeast of Johannesburg, a government spokeswoman said no one from Zuma's government would appear. More than a dozen seats for cabinet ministers on the main stage were empty when ceremonies started.
Zuma, who faces an election next year, has come under fire from critics over the government's clumsy handling of what has come to be known as the "Marikana massacre", including questions over alleged police brutality.
The Marikana killings were among 60 deaths during a wave of illegal strikes and labor violence in the country's mines that started last year and spilled over into this year. The violence helped trigger credit downgrades for Africa's biggest economy and dented the image of the ANC government.
Zuma's ruling ANC said it would not participate in Friday's memorial because the event was being organized by a Marikana support group, which includes the hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
"We are not participating in this activity," ANC spokesman Ishmael Mnisi told Reuters. "People are taking advantage of a tragedy for their own political benefit."
The labor union ally of Zuma's ANC, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which has been displaced by the more hardline AMCU as the dominant union among miners in the area, said it was also staying away, for safety reasons.
"It's important that we commemorate those who lost their lives, but it is not necessary that we go and commemorate only to lose more lives. The possibility of losing further lives is great," NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka said.
The more radical AMCU accuses the ANC government and its NUM union allies of siding with mining bosses over the interests of workers fighting for better pay and conditions.
The two unions have been involved in a deadly war for members among South Africa's mineworkers, accusing each other of being behind killings of members over the past few months.
At Marikana, thousands of people, many of them wearing green AMCU T-shirts, gathered on and around the rocky outcrop dubbed by media the "Hill of Horror" where the strikers were killed last year, most falling in a hail of police gunfire.
Marikana worker Paulos Mpahlela, 60, expressed anger at the government and ANC's decision to stay away.
"We are hurt, the government should be here. They should have taken the trouble to come and be here because they're the leaders," he said.
The decision by the ruling party and government to stay away highlights the alienation of many of South Africa's poorest workers from the ANC, Nelson Mandela's liberation movement which has dominated South Africa since the end of apartheid.
The ANC is still expected to win elections easily next year, but increasingly suffers from accusations that it has become the party of the rich and powerful.
"What it shows is that the ANC, the NUM and the government have lost their legitimacy in that region which has become enemy territory. It is a unique situation when the NUM and ANC cannot appear somewhere," Cape Town-based political analyst Nic Borain told Reuters.
AMCU denies that its aggressive recruitment tactics are behind the unrest in South Africa's mines, which has injected added tension into the latest round of wage bargaining currently underway between mining companies and unions.
Attending the Marikana commemoration, AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa called it a "sad day" that should not be used for political "electioneering".
The threat of an immediate fresh strike at Marikana was eased this week when Lonmin, the world's No. 3 platinum producer, signed a deal with AMCU recognizing it as the majority union at its mine, although labor tension remains high.
A government commission of inquiry was due to conclude its investigation into the Marikana shootings by last December but proceedings stalled and lately were suspended because of lack of funding for lawyers representing the victims.
Rights group Amnesty International urged the government to ensure that inquiry was fully completed.
"There seems to be a critical lack of political will to ensure that the police and those responsible for the police fully account for their actions," Amnesty's Deputy Programme Director for Africa Noel Kututwa said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz, Pascal Fletcher, Peroshni Govender and Sherilee Lakmidas in Johannesburg; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Graff)