South Africa’s firebrand youth leader, Julius Malema, has called for President Jacob Zuma to resign over the of “massacre” of 34 striking workers near a British-owned platinum mine last week.
Mr Malema, who was expelled from the African National Congress four months ago, made his comments during a visit on Saturday to the Marikana platinum mine in the country’s north-west, where the miners died during clashes with police on Thursday.
Backing the miners’ call for a higher pay from the mine’s owners, he said that South Africa’s mines should be nationalised and that the strikers should not return to work until they were paid more than double their present salaries of around £400 a month.
The involvement of Mr Malema will dramatically raise the stakes in the controversy. A firebrand politician, he has accused Mr Zuma of doing little to help South Africa’s poor, many of whom claim the ruling ANC has enriched only a small black elite. The ANC’s reputation has been put at stake because the union that has led the strike, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, has accused the rival National Union of Mineworkers, of being too close to both the ANC and the mine’s owners, Lonmin PLC.
Mr Malema said President Jacob Zuma had presided over the “massacre of the people of South Africa. How can he call on people to mourn those he has killed? He must step down.”
As a police helicopter hovered above a bare field where the miners were killed, a list of those who died was released by Lonmin.
The list was posted up outside the nearby Andrew Saffy Memorial Hospital where many of the injured were treated after police opened fire against striking miners.
As Mr Malema went into Wonderkop Village, as the shack settlement is called, near the Marikana mine, his aides called on the police to withdraw.
Police moved their vehicles further from the huge crowd which had gathered to hear Mr Malema, the wealthy former president of the ANC youth league.
Ululating women welcomed Mr Malema with traditional ANC songs and a few were holding placards. One read: “R500 for killing police from Musina to Cape Town” A woman explained that her placard meant that anyone who could kill police officers from South Africa’s northern boundary to its southern tip would receive a reward of about £50.
Mr Malema’s aide, Floyd Shivambu who was also kicked out of the ANC, criticised the police: “Most of the people were shot at the back, indicating that they were running away so police actions were not justified,” he said.
The massacre happened after days of unrest and violence at the mine in which ten people, including two policemen were killed a week ago.
Police said they had been making progress until late Thursday and were negotiating with union leaders, but the crowd of about 3,000 strikers, gathered on a hill, would not disperse Police say some of the strikers had guns.
Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, and then as the strikers began to descend from the hill towards an informal settlement, police opened fire and within two minutes the dusty field was littered with bodies and injured men.
“Miners around the country should stand in solidarity with the miners at Lonmin,” Mr Malema added.
Political analysts say Mr Malema’s intervention among tense miners and grieving families was part of his campaign to discredit Mr Zuma, who is seeking another term as president of the ANC at its congress in December.
Mr Zuma was called back to South Africa from Mozambique on Friday, where he was the main speaker at a regional summit. At a press conference on his return, he said he would order a commission of inquiry into the deaths at the mine.