By Zandi Shabalala
PRETORIA (Reuters) - Thousands of South African platinum miners from the AMCU union marched through Pretoria on Thursday to protest what it says are state and company efforts to break its six-week old wage strike against the world's three top producers of the precious metal.
Clad in their trademark green shirts, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) members marched to the Union Buildings, the seat of South Africa's government, to hand in a memorandum of protest to President Jacob Zuma.
The march came the day after wage talks collapsed between AMCU and Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin, dashing hopes for an end to a stoppage that has hit 40 percent of global output of the metal.
Over 300,000 ounces of platinum production have been lost so far to the current stoppage compared to around 600,000 ounces to the wildcat strikes in 2012. The platinum price spiked to six-month highs on Wednesday after the wage talks collapsed.
There was a heavy police presence at the march, with armoured vehicles on standby, but the protest was peaceful.
Addressing the marchers, AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa accused mines minister Susan Shabangu of urging the companies to seek legal avenues against the union to try to halt the strike.
"The minister has chosen to collude with foreign companies, to sue AMCU for millions," Mathunjwa said.
Amplats has said it is suing AMCU for almost 600 million rand for what it says are damages caused by its striking members stemming from vandalism and intimidation to prevent non-striking members from going to work.
The union has also been accused of violating picketing rules in an ongoing case in the country's labour court.
AMCU has long rejected allegations it uses intimidation to keep its members in line and Mathunjwa on Thursday accused the police of using unnecessary force against it. One AMCU member was shot dead by police last month during a picket line scuffle.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), AMCU's rival, said one of its members was in a critical condition with broken ribs after being attacked by striking miners at Amplats' Union Mine on Thursday, the third such incident reported in the past week at the operation.
AMCU emerged as the top union on the platinum belt after wresting tens of thousands of members in a bloody turf war from the once unrivalled NUM, a key ally of the ruling African National Congress which faces a general election on May 7.
Mathunjwa has taken a huge gamble with the strike, which could solidify his power base or severely undermine him if it is seen by the rank and file to fail.
AMCU said on Tuesday it had softened its stance for the first time, saying it now wanted staggered pay rises to bring the basic entry wage to 12,500 rand a month in three years' time, over double current levels, instead of immediately.
The companies say this is unaffordable and are sticking to their latest offer of increases of up to 9 percent, setting the stage for a protracted showdown in the restive platinum belt.
Producers are still recovering from a wave of wildcat strikes rooted in the AMCU/NUM turf war that swept the sector in 2012, unleashing violence that killed dozens of people.
The reaction to the latest strike from markets has been fairly muted so far, with players betting there are adequate above ground stocks. This scenario could change as the strike looks set to become protracted with no date set for talks to resume and the two sides still poles apart.