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SA mine halts construction as police block speech

MARIKANA, South Africa — As South Africa's bloody and bitter mining strike dragged on its fifth week, London-registered Lonmin PLC announced Monday it is halting construction of a new shaft, putting 1,200 people out of work.

The strikes that have stopped work at seven gold and platinum mines have spread to the chrome sector, according to the official South African Press Association.

Meanwhile, police blocked rabblerousing politician Julius Malema from addressing some 3,000 strikers gathered at a stadium at the Lonmin mine at Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg.

"Arrest him!" one officer ordered, giving Malema 20 minutes to leave or face arrest. This caused Malema to take off with his entourage.

"I'm leaving. We're getting out of here. Why are you chasing me? Are you going to shoot me?" Malema taunted.

Police on Aug. 16 shot 112 striking Lonmin miners, killing 34, in the worst state violence seen in South Africa since apartheid ended in 1994.

Malema sprinted to his all-terrain vehicle and sped off. Police piled into two armored cars and two other police vehicles and followed Malema at high speed on muddy dirt tracks that wind their way through the tin-shack ghetto with no water or electricity that is home to thousands of Lonmin's miners. The police vehicles and a helicopter hovering above the politician's car literally drove Malema out of town, making sure that he got onto a two-lane highway without speaking to any crowds. Police did not say on what grounds they blocked Malema or threatened him with arrest.

Malema, who was expelled from the ruling African National Congress in April for "sowing disunity," has called for a nationwide mining strike, feeding on the anger of miners to boost his campaign to oust South African President Jacob Zuma as leader of the ANC.

Armed soldiers for the first time joined police in armored cars standing guard at Lonmin earlier Monday. A truck-mounted water cannon stood by as a helicopter flew overhead.

Church and opposition leaders condemned the state security for its heavy-handed action against the strikers, saying it mirrors the force used years ago by the white minority apartheid regime. The opposition Congress of the People party demanded the withdrawal of some 1,000 soldiers trucked over the weekend into the "platinum belt" 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Johannesburg.

In Johannesburg, President Jacob Zuma called for a speedy resolution to the mining strikes. He said the strikes have cost South Africa close to 4.5 billion rand (nearly $563 million) in lost gold and platinum production this year.

Zuma told a conference of the Congress of South African Trade Unions that this year's work stoppages have subtracted nearly 3.1 billion rand ($388 million) from the national treasury.

He blamed poor living and working conditions of miners on the apartheid past and the failures of mining companies to honor a charter to improve the lives of miners.

Zuma said mining companies are required to improve the housing and living conditions of workers and also to invest in skills development, racial equity in employment and ownership as well as local community development. He said violence cannot become a culture of South African labor relations.

Union rivalries and demands for better pay have stopped work at one gold and seven platinum mines. Aquarius Platinum said work resumed at its mine Monday, and Anglo American Platinum said it would restart operations Tuesday at its four mines under police security.

A strike leader said some miners at Samancor Chrome stopped work Friday demanding a minimum take-home pay of 12,500 rand ($1,560), according to SAPA.

It is unclear how many miners are on strike in the different stoppages. Mining companies claim it is a minority with tens of thousands of workers not reporting for duty because of violent threats and intimidation. Previous marches by strikers brandishing machetes, spears and clubs have numbered several thousand.

Lonmin said negotiations would continue Monday after strikers last week rejected an offer of 16 to 21 percent pay increases that fell far short of the demands of striking rock drill operators for a minimum monthly take-home pay of R12,500 ($1,560).

The chief economist of the Chamber of Mines, Roger Baxter, on Monday told Talk Radio 702 that the average rock drill operator earns an average monthly total before deductions of 11,689 rands ($1,460) which he said put those workers in the top 20 percent of all earners in South Africa. For comparison, Baxter noted that semi-skilled steel and industry workers earn a monthly total of 4,000 to 5,000 rands ($500 to $625). Deductions often account for half a workers' salary.

On Saturday, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at a shantytown neighboring Lonmin mine, where officers killed 34 miners on Aug. 16 in attacks that shocked the nation of 48 million. The weekend crackdown was condemned by the head of the South African Council of Churches.

"Government must be crazy believing that what to me resembles an apartheid-era crackdown can succeed," said Anglican Bishop Jo Seoka, the council president. "We must not forget that such crackdowns in the past led to more resistance and government can ill afford to be seen as the enemy of the people that put them in power."

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Thomas Phakane contributed to this report from Marikana. Faul reported from Johannesburg.