ANC renegade Julius Malema called on Tuesday for a national strike in South Africa's mining sector, stirring fear of an escalation in the labor unrest already buffeting the platinum and gold industries in the continent's largest economy.
The flagship sector has been hit by a walkout that culminated in mid-August in violence between striking miners and police that killed 44 people. Of these, 34 were miners shot in a single day by police at the Marikana mine of Lonmin, the world's No. 3 platinum producer.
The so-called "Marikana massacre" has brewed a political storm for President Jacob Zuma and his African National Congress (ANC) government. Detractors accuse them of neglecting the working masses who fought and shed blood to help achieve the end of white-minority apartheid rule in 1994.
The industrial trouble rocking the platinum belt has spread to gold, with a second illegal strike in as many weeks at a mine run by world No. 4 bullion producer Gold Fields, where 15,000 workers downed their tools on Sunday night.
"There must be a national strike in all the mines," Malema, who has previously led calls for the nationalization of South Africa's mines, told Gold Fields strikers on Tuesday at a stadium in Carletonville west of Johannesburg.
Malema is the disgraced former head of the ANC's youth wing who was expelled from the party earlier this year for indiscipline. A skilful political operator with a populist touch, he and other opponents of Zuma have been trying to use the mine unrest to pressure the president ahead of an ANC leadership conference in December.
The labor upheaval is damaging the ruling ANC's claim to be a champion of worker interests, even as it tries to promote stable growth in the world's top platinum-producing state.
There was no end in sight to the month-long strike that has paralyzed Lonmin after thousands of protesters armed with sticks and machetes marched in a show of force on Monday, vowing to hunt and kill strike-breakers.
In a sobering reminder of the violence in the area, police said they found a male body on Tuesday that had been hacked to death but would not speculate as to reason for the killing.
The few workers who wanted to report for duty at Lonmin's Karee mine on Tuesday were asked to stay away for their own safety as strikers gathered nearby, said Gideon du Plessis, deputy secretary general of the trade union Solidarity.
"The strikers started intimidating people very early this morning and so the area around the Karee mine was declared unsafe," he told Reuters.
Planned talks for Tuesday did not get off the ground with government arbitrators saying they have not given up hope on brokering a deal to end the impasse.
A precondition for wage negotiations is for workers to return to their posts. If the mediator pulls out, Lonmin will have to deal directly with the workers, who have promised not to return until their demand is met for a more than doubling of their basic monthly wage to 12,500 rand ($1,500).
The platinum sector has been shaken by a violent turf war between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a longtime political ally of the governing ANC, and the militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
The labor troubles stem in large part from rank and file discontent over NUM's leadership, which is regarded as out of touch and too close to management and the ANC.
The Gold Fields strikers are demanding the removal of their NUM branch leaders. Malema told them that the national bosses including NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni must also step down.
COSATU, the mother union federation to which NUM belongs and partner to the ANC in South Africa's governing alliance, condemned Malema's call for a national mine strike.
"He is playing a dangerous game, exploiting the emotions of angry workers. This can only inflame tensions within the mining industry, flames which he is quite incapable of quenching," the federation said in a statement.
It added: "COSATU urges workers not to allow themselves to be used as a political football, to remain united and strong and to focus their anger on their real enemy, the mining bosses."
Gold Fields last week resolved an illegal strike by 12,000 workers at another mine who voiced similar anti-NUM grievances.
The world's largest platinum mine, run by Impala Platinum, was shut for six weeks earlier this year because of the AMCU/NUM turf war. On Tuesday, Implats said the latest wage demand from its work force was for another 8-10 percent hike on top of one conceded in April.
South Africa's mining industry is being sucked into a vicious circle as labor unrest spreads with steep wage demands that employers can ill afford. Glaring income disparities have also driven the worker militancy.
But many platinum shafts are unprofitable and soaring costs mean gold mines will also start losing money in just a few years' time if the precious metal's bull run is not maintained.