By Joshua Nhlapo
MARIKANA, South Africa (Reuters) - South African police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse striking miners on Saturday after seizing machetes and other weapons in an early-morning raid likely to aggravate tension from five weeks of labor unrest.
The police took action a day after South Africa promised to crack down on "illegal gatherings" and the carrying of weapons by strikers, toughening its stance on strikes that have choked off platinum output in the world's top producer of the metal.
About 500 police officers raided hostels at Lonmin's Karee platinum mine near Marikana - where police killed 34 miners last month - and seized spears, machetes and other weapons, police spokesman Thulani Ngubane said.
The wildcat strike at Lonmin, prompted by demands for higher pay, has spread to other mining companies, raised questions about the ruling ANC's slow response and damaged South Africa's reputation among foreign investors.
Strikers on Friday rejected a pay offer from Lonmin, although a union spokesman said a new offer had since been put on the table.
A spokeswoman for Lonmin declined to comment and said the company would issue a statement later.
Police arrested five people in the raids on the hostels, home to about 6,000 miners, but for drugs offences not weapons, police spokesman Ngubane said.
"The aim of the raid was to disarm the mine workers to make sure that we do away with the elements of threats that are taking their toll in the area of Marikana," Ngubane said.
Miners later gathered at a field in Marikana, about 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Johannesburg. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to break up the crowd, some of whom threw rocks at police as they fled, according to a Reuters reporter on the scene.
In Marikana last month police shot 34 striking miners dead in a single day, the bloodiest police action in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. A total of 45 people have been killed in the unrest.
QUALITY OF LEADERSHIP
The "Marikana massacre" has poisoned industrial relations in South Africa and drawn criticism that President Jacob Zuma and the ruling ANC have been too slow in dealing with the widening crisis.
The government said on Friday it would crack down on illegal gatherings and the carrying of weapons. The mine shootings have made it difficult for use force to break up of strikers, most of whom are armed with sticks, spears and machetes.
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj defended the government's clamp down.
"It is necessary to act and this is the time when the quality of leadership of our people will come out," he told broadcaster eNews Channel Africa.
"We believe we will reinstill and enhance confidence in our economy and amongst investors as well as amongst our working people."
The ANC is now showing more concern about the potential impact from the unrest on the economy. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan conceded on Friday it could be "extremely damaging". He had previously said the violence was unlikely to have a significant impact on growth.
Led by the militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), the strikes have also threatened the long dominance of the National Union of Mineworkers, which is in an alliance with the ruling African National Congress.
The strikers say that the ANC and big unions have forgotten the needs of South Africa's millions of poor.
(Additional reporting by Olivia Kumwenda in JOHANNESBURG, Writing by David Dolan, Editing by Angus MacSwan)