MARIKANA, South Africa  - South African police on Saturday fired rubber bullets, raided worker hostels and seized traditional weapons at platinum giant Lonmin in a crackdown on rising unrest in the key mining industry.
A military helicopter arrived as backup after security forces used rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of workers in a shantytown near where police shot dead 34 people last month at the London-listed company’s Marikana mine.
“Wherever we see this unruly behaviour and people taking the law into their hands by embarking on unprotected gatherings and illegal gatherings, we are definitely going to act,” police spokesman Thulani Ngubane told AFP.
“The police are not going to hesitate to act. We are going to act as we have started acting and we are going to continue doing that.” The raids are the first use of force by police since the bloodshed on August 16, which shocked the world with its echoes of apartheid brutality. Officers had since been monitoring a spike in protests in the country’s platinum belt from afar.
Police moved into Marikana less than 24 hours after government announced a security clampdown on the unrest that has forced three leading platinum producers to halt mining operations on the richest deposits in the world.
Five hundred officers raided hostels at world number three producer Lonmin’s mine at 2:00 am (0000 GMT) and seized piles of metal rods, spears, machetes and sticks. Police then fired tear gas to disperse gathering protesters later in the morning, with clashes breaking out as workers regrouped and threw stones at officers amid the shacks opposite the mine.
Plumes of black smoke poured into the sky from burning tyres which workers used as barricades along with large rocks dragged across the dirt roads inside the humble settlement. “We used rubber bullets, we used stun grenades,” Ngubane confirmed. Images of people with bloody wounds from the rubber bullets were shown on television news channel eNCA. An AFP photographer on the scene saw a man bleeding after being shot in the arm and the side of his body.
“A police nyala (armoured truck) drove past us, we were a group of women and others ran away. I just stood there watching and they shot me in my leg,” Melita Ramasedi told the Sapa news agency, showing her bleeding leg.
The military helicopter was sent in to provide support to a police chopper, but there were no soldiers on the ground. The government on Friday said the situation was not a state of emergency.
Yet Ngubane did not rule out the military being sent in to assist police if needed.
“They are part of the state, all state resources are available to make sure that we maintain the situation of Marikana,” he said.
“But at this stage there is no soldier that is anywhere on the field or that is anywhere around the operational area of Marikana.”
A total of 12 people were arrested in the morning, bringing the total to 19 since the crackdown was launched Friday, but the police said more were being processed.
The wage disputes have spread to surrounding mines after starting with a wildcat strike that erupted last month at Marikana and turned violent, killing 45 people in all.
On Friday, the world’s leading ferrochrome producer, Xstrata Alloys, and the fourth-largest platinum producer, Aquarius, said growing protests and tensions in the area had forced the temporary halt of operations.
The world’s top platinum producer Anglo American Platinum has also closed five of its mines over safety fears after intimidation and threats of violence against staff trying to go to work.
The government clampdown is targeting the illegal gatherings, weapons, incitement and threats of violence that have characterised the unrest—with thousands of miners mobilising with spears and machetes and fiery threats of intimidation and deepened strike action.
The mining sector, the backbone of South Africa’s economy, directly employs around 500,000 people and accounts for nearly one-fifth of gross domestic product when related activities are included.
It also brings in about half of the nation’s export earnings.
The labour strife has also spread to the gold sector, where 15,000 Gold Fields miners have been striking since Sunday.