South Africa Police Step Up Efforts Against Protesters
South Africa Police Step Up Efforts Against Protesters
By Devon Maylie and Peter Wonacott
JOHANNESBURG-One month after South African police killed protesters near a platinum mine in a clash that inflamed national tensions, police have stepped in again to try to end the turmoil in the country's mining sector.
On Sunday, police stopped hundreds of demonstrators employed at the world's largest platinum producer, Anglo American Platinum Ltd., from marching to a police station in nearby Rustenburg to protest a security clampdown that began Friday. Meanwhile, at the third-biggest platinum miner, Lonmin PLC, protesters used rocks and dirt mounds to block roads and prevent police from entering an informal settlement where strike leaders were hiding. At one point, nine police trucks attempted to dislodge the barriers before turning back.
The day before, police fired rubber bullets at protesters, raided homes of miners for weapons and arrested more than 38 people, according to a local police officer who was part of the operations. Those arrested were scheduled to appear Monday at a local Rustenburg court, he said.
The moves follow weeks of illegal strikes that have paralyzed platinum production in South Africa, which accounts for 80% of the metal's global output, and hit the country's major goldmines. The wildcat strikes erupted after police on Aug. 16 gunned down 34 people who refused to disperse during a wage protest at Lonmin's Marikana mine. In all, 45 people have died in the strike violence.
President Jacob Zuma has resisted calls to take disciplinary action against those involved in the police shootings before a judicial committee that he set up releases its findings. State prosecutors fueled a public outcry after they used an apartheid-era law to formally charge protesters with the murder of the 34 people that police shot, on the basis that they had incited the violence. Prosecutors later dropped the murder charges following the public uproar.
South Africa's police chief, Riah Phiyega, has defended her force, saying officers used appropriate measures to protect themselves against an armed assault.
But the Marikana incident has put a fresh spotlight on a chronic problem with policing and public order, says Gareth Newham, head of the Crime and Justice Program at the Institute of Security Studies, a Pretoria-based think tank. Either the police don't act quickly enough before situations go out of control, as in the case of the 2008 riots that targeted African migrants, or overzealous actions deepen conflicts, he says.
"Police are supposed to de-escalate violence," Mr. Newham says. "In the past few years, they've escalated conflicts."
The number of police-related deaths last year reached 797, more than double a decade earlier, according to figures from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, a government arm that investigates potential criminal offenses by police. Between 1997 and 2010, 5,820 people died as a result of police action or during police custody, according to the IPID figures.
After the shootings at Marikana, police had played a largely passive role in trying to protect company property during protests, and allowed miners to march with makeshift weapons such as spears and machetes.
On Friday, the South African government signaled a shift. The country's justice minister, Jeff Radebe, told reporters that law-enforcement agencies won't tolerate individuals inciting violence and would arrest those engaged in illegal gatherings or carrying weapons. Mr. Radebe said the government is intervening now because the strikes have put South Africa's economy at risk.
But the stepped-up police action also carries political risks. One of President Zuma's chief critics, Julius Malema, a youth leader expelled from the ruling African National Congress, has sought to stir opposition to the government in the wake of Marikana shootings. He has called for a nationwide mining strike and for Mr. Zuma's resignation.
On Sunday, a spokesman for a special investigative police unit called the Hawks said Mr. Malema is being investigated for his alleged role in instigating violence at Lonmin. The investigation follows a complaint lodged by labor union Solidarity after Mr. Malema visited the mines and called for a national mine strike, according to the Hawks spokesman, MacIntosh Polela.
A spokesman for Mr. Malema described the charges as "intimidation" and said they wouldn't stop him from meeting with Marikana miners and their families on Monday.
As part of the government's renewed efforts to stop the protests, police barged into a hostel early Saturday morning where Lonmin workers stay, breaking windows and pointing guns at those asleep, the workers said. Miners in a nearby informal settlement said police also started firing rubber bullets around women and children who weren't part of the protest.
A defense department spokesman said around 150 soldiers have been deployed in the area and are assisting police in their raids to contain those they believe to be leading the protests.
Behind the strikes are demands for higher wages by workers frustrated at the slow pace of change since the end of apartheid 18 years ago. Many workers have rejected representation of the National Union of Mineworkers, the country's biggest union and an ally of the ruling African National Congress. The upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union has been actively recruiting, spurring intra-union clashes as the two unions battle for membership. Some miners also say they are striking on their own initiative, outside of all union leadership.
Anglo American said Sunday that it plans to reopen the mines Tuesday following the police efforts. "We … commend the government and our key local stakeholders in helping to restore calm to the Rustenburg area," said Chris Griffith, the company's chief executive.
Lonmin has offered an increase far below the 12,500 rand (US$1,522) a month that the miners are demanding. On Sunday, they said they cannot afford the miner's demands.
In an opinion piece in the local Sunday Times, Simon Scott, Lonmin's acting chief executive officer, called the deadly clash at Lonmin "a defining moment for South Africa," and said the miner was struggling with its responsibility to the community and the country as well as its shareholders who have invested in the shuttered mine. "After all the horrific violence at Marikana, it is essential that we move as quickly as possible into meaningful negotiations," he wrote.
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