Miners and other black South Africans living in poverty feel deserted by the ANC government they helped put into power.
Thousands of workers on strike at the Marikana mine in South Africa’s North West province are poised to defy an extended deadline to return to work.
The workers have been joined by wives, girlfriends and supporters in a display of solidarity, after a government-backed effort to broker a deal between management, unions and miners failed.
Another deadline has passed in the past few hours, but there is no sign of the strike breaking. Instead, the industrial action in Marikana, 100km north of Johannesburg, appears to be spreading to other mines.
And what began as an industrial dispute over pay, with workers demanding monthly wages of about $1,500 – twice what they currently earn at the platinum mine – has turned into a political crisis for South African President Jacob Zuma.
Julius Malema, expelled leader of the ruling ANC party’s youth wing, has addressed a rally at the KDC Gold Fields mine, east of Johannesburg, where most of the gold mine’s 15,000 workers are also on strike.
“The strike at Marikana must go into all the mines,” he told cheering crowds blowing vuvuzelas and whistles.
“R12,500 ($1,500) is a reality. They must know, the mine bosses, that if they don’t meet your demand, we’re going to strike every month for five days, demanding R12,500.”
Al Jazeera’s Tania Page, reporting from Marikana, said Malema is playing “a rather dangerous game”.
“He’s already been charged with inciting violence by one of the mining unions, Solidarity,” she said.
“But it’s also a very clever game, because there is a mass of people in this country who really do feel as if they have left behind, that the ANC has not delivered on promises to improve people’s lives.”
South Africa’s labour mediation committee had extended the deadline to Tuesday for workers at the world’s third-largest platinum mine to return to work in order for salary negotiations to start.
The committee says its “facilitation is dependent on a return to work by all workers” and threatened to leave the miners to deal with Lonmin managers.
While the country’s leaders have come under fire, Zuma has been hitting back at his critics, launching a judicial commission of inquiry.
“This will be really, really broad,” our correspondent said.
“It’s going to look at the police actions, how the police behaved on the day [of the killings], allegations against the police, of brutality against some of the Lonmin workers who were arrested and in custody for several weeks.
“It’s also going to look at Lonmin, was there anything Lonmin could have done to avoid a standoff. Also it will look at the unions’ behaviour – and was there anything that the government could have done to predict events that we still see unfolding here.”
National strike call
Tensions have been high at the mine since 34 of the protesting workers were shot and killed by police last month, some of whom may have been shot while trying to surrender.
|Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna reports from Marikana|
Malema has called for a national strike across all South African mines to demand the removal of the leadership of the National Union of Mines.
“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.
“What you must do, you just put down the tools and stop production.”
Frans Baleni, NUM general secretary, told Al Jazeera that a high level of intimidation has stopped many miners from returning to work.
“The workers are still scared. There have been threats that those who have reported for duty would have their homes torched,” he said.
“Some of the workers also feel threatened by their managers. Peace has not really prevailed at this stage, which is the main reason why workers would stay away.”
The ongoing industrial action has pushed down Lonmin’s shares, raised world platinum prices and fuelled fears of labour unrest spreading through the mining sector of Africa’s largest economy.