It was the biggest show of force since officers shot dead the 34 miners, the worst police bloodshed since democracy in 1994, which sparked comparisons with the apartheid-era brutality of the white-minority regime.
A mediator in Lonmin’s wage talks warned that the crackdown could lead to a “complete revolt across the platinum belt”.
“Government must be crazy believing that, what to me resembles an apartheid-era crackdown, can succeed,” said Bishop Jo Seoka, president of the South African Council of Churches.
“We must not forget that such crackdowns in the past led to more resistance,” he added.
The government could ill afford to be seen as the enemy of the people that had put it in power, he said.
Police have sworn to carry out the government’s orders to stamp out the illegal gatherings, illegal weapons, incitement and threats of violence that have characterised the protests.
“The police are not going to hesitate to act,” spokesman Brigadier Thulani Ngubane told AFP.
The police confirmed they had used rubber bullets on Saturday and said that in addition to seven arrests of protesters at a mine on Friday, they had detained at least another 12 people.
An AFP photographer saw a man bleeding after having been 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. Seoka said six women had been shot and one of them had to be hospitalised.
The troubles at Lonmin, the world’s third largest platinum producer, over a wage dispute in which 45 people have died, have spread to surrounding mines and to a Gold Fields mine near Johannesburg.
The world’s top platinum producer Anglo American Platinum has closed five mines because of safety fears. Leading ferrochrome producer, Xstrata Alloys, and Aquarius Platinum also halted work on Friday due to the mounting protests.
President Jacob Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj told AFP that the actions were “very proper, firm, some people would even say, inadequate measures” given the violence and threats of intimidation.”
“If we allow the situation to continue, the economy will suffer severely and we will be going down the road of lawlessness,” he added.
Mining is the backbone of South Africa’s economy. It directly employs around 500,000 people and once related activities are included accounts for nearly one-fifth of gross domestic product.