South African President Jacob Zuma met Wednesday with disgruntled miners at the Lonmin facility where 44 people have died in a wildcat strike, as tensions rippled to nearby shafts.
The visit was his second since police gunned down 34 armed miners one week ago, in a crackdown on the violent strike that had earlier left 10 people dead in inter-union attacks.
“This is painful to all of us. It is not acceptable for people to die where talks can be held,” Zuma told about 2,000 workers, speaking to them in a field while an aide held an umbrella over him.
“But I do feel your pain and have come personally to express that. I am certain that the commission of inquiry will get to the bottom of what happened here.”
Zuma has announced a judicial commission to investigate the police shoot-out, which shocked South Africa in the deadliest day of protest since apartheid.
Police are undertaking their own investigation, while the independent police watchdog is also probing the police conduct.
That’s done little to soothe the tempers among the 3,000 workers, mainly rock drill operators, who launched an illegal strike on August 10 at Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana to demand higher wages of 12,500 rand ($1,500, 1,200 euros) a month.
On Wednesday, similar demands were being pressed at the nearby Royal Bafokeng Platinum Mine, where 600 rock drillers downed tools.
Anglo American Platinum, the world’s top producer, said it had also received a list of demands from its workers in Marikana but declined to comment on the issues raised.
The new disputes emerged following Lonmin’s first talks late Tuesday with representatives of the strikers.
Anglican Bishop Johannes Seoka, who facilitated the talks, said the meeting was cordial and that both sides showed a willingness to cooperate.
“All we ask management is to please allow workers to give them their demands, to listen to them and to engage with them because the workers have been asking just to talk,” he told AFP.
“If they had talked earlier on, the massacre would have been avoided,” he added.
Lonmin spokeswoman Sue Vey said the meeting had not focused on workers’ demands, but rather on easing tensions.
“It was a meeting of employers and employees, basically discussing the current situation,” she said.
“It’s the first time they’ve managed to sit down (and talk) and that’s good.”
The strikers say they currently earn 4,000 rand. Lonmin says that when their bonuses and other allowances are included, the workers earn around 11,000 rand, with a nine-percent increase set to kick in on October 1.
Workers who attended the talks said they also wanted the release of the 259 people arrested after the police crackdown last Thursday, when officers gunned down 34 people.
“We want our brothers who (were) arrested to be freed, without bail. They must attend the memorial service” Thursday, said Kwenene Msindiseni, a rock driller.
South Africa is preparing services across the country on Thursday, including one near the site of the police killings.
Many of the victims were migrant workers, and most of their bodies have already been returned to their hometowns.
Amid the preparations for the memorials, mining companies tried to contain the labour unrest.
Royal Bafokeng spokeswoman Kea Kalebe said the protest was confined to one shaft, and that the company was still clarifying the demands of the miners, who told reporters they were also seeking a wage of 12,500 rand a month.
“We are still trying to establish the facts, the situation is calm, they were singing and we are obviously monitoring the situation,” she said.
Johannesburg-listed Royal Bafokeng Platinum is controlled by the investment company of South Africa’s Bafokeng tribe.
Anglo American Platinum spokeswoman Mpumi Sithole said the company had been presented with a broad list of demands by a group of employees, who had not engaged their union, and who wanted a response by Friday.
“It’s not a wage demand,” she said, declining to elaborate.
But she added that management’s door was open to workers.
“We (are) engaging with our employees constantly and we’ve made sure that our engagement structures are open and that our employees know exactly when and where to come to if they’ve got any issues that they would like to bring to our attention,” she said.