South African activist Julius Malema ratcheted up the heat in his country’s ongoing labor unrest on Tuesday, calling for a national strike that would stop the mineral-rich nation’s gold industry in its tracks.
“They have been stealing this gold from you,” he exhorted the thousands of striking miners gathered to hear him. “Now it is your turn. You want your piece of gold. These people are making billions from these mines.”
The ubiquitous sounds of cheers and the blowing of whistles and vuvuzelas, the plastic horns that came to international prominence during the 2010 World Cup, were testament to Malema’s warmly received populist message among an impoverished working class that feels left out of South Africa’s post-apartheid climb to economic prosperity.
His speech is the latest development in a bitter labor strife that has already halted production at two platinum and gold mines.
Meanwhile, the specter of violence loomed some 60 miles (100 kilometers) away in Marikana as armed police in armored cars and helicopters shadowed 8,000 more striking miners as they marched to a hospital to see some of the 190 miners who they allege were beaten and tortured in police custody.
A mining company security guard wearing a bulletproof vest told reporters the patients had been evacuated for safety reasons.
The scene was peaceful, but things remained tense as strikers there have threatened to kill anyone who goes to work.
Miner unrest has become a central issue in South Africa since police shot and killed 34 striking miners and wounded 78 on Aug. 16 at Lonmin PLC’s platinum mine at Marikana.
On Tuesday, journalists found the body of another murdered man at Marikana, with deep gashes to the back of the neck. Police confirmed a body was found near a granite hill where strikers normally gather.
That raises the toll from violence at Lonmin’s mine to 45, including 10 people killed in the days before the police shootings.
Lonmin said in a statement Tuesday that only three percent of its workers had shown up.
“Lonmin condemns the ongoing intimidation and threats to life and property,” the London-registered company said. “The continuing efforts of a minority to keep the mine closed through threats of violence now pose a real and significant threat to jobs.”
Malema told striking miners at a gold mine near Driefontein that their nation’s critically important mining industry should be halted to force the removal of the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers, which he alleges is cozy with the power elite including South African President Jacob Zuma, Malema’s arch-enemy.
Malema led the miners in chants of “Kill the boer,” a song from the anti-apartheid struggle referring to white farmers. Malema was expelled from the ruling African National Congress earlier this year for sowing disunity and failing to accept party discipline. Party leaders had criticized the former leader of the ANC’s youth wing for singing “Kill the boer.”
Apartheid, or racist white rule, ended in 1994 with South Africa’s first all-race elections.
Miners at Marikana, some wielding machetes, sang: “Tell Zuma to stop killing us,” a reference to the Aug. 16 shootings by police.
Malema referred to the ANC-led struggle against apartheid as his model for civil disobedience, denying that his calls to make the nation’s mines “ungovernable” promotes violence.
“When we say to you we must render the mines ungovernable people think we are talking violence…they don’t know our history,” he said. “We made South Africa ungovernable under the apartheid government peacefully. What you must do, you just put down the tools and stop production.”
Malema is being investigated by police for fraud regarding money paid into his family trust and by the revenue service on tax payments. He has said his arrest would be politically motivated.
More than 10,000 workers have halted operations since Sunday night at the west section of Gold Fields International’s KDC gold mine.