MARIKANA, South Africa (Reuters) - Opponents of President Jacob Zuma turned the anniversary of South Africa's bloodiest post-apartheid mine violence into an attack on his failure to tackle poverty and inequality on Friday after his government shunned a memorial event for slain miners.
In a decision highlighting the ruling African National Congress (ANC)'s loss of support among many mineworkers, Zuma's government backed out of the ceremony commemorating 34 striking platinum workers killed by police at Lonmin's Marikana mine.
Last year's so-called "Marikana massacre" was the deadliest incident of its kind since the 1994 end of white-minority rule. It shocked South Africans and the world and drew attention to growing workers' dissatisfaction with Zuma and the ANC's rule.
Instead of attending the Marikana memorial event, Zuma flew to a regional summit in neighboring Malawi.
While seats reserved for cabinet ministers at the memorial remained empty, leading critics of Zuma who plan to challenge him and the ANC in elections next year pilloried his government's handling of labor unrest and popular protests against widespread poverty and unemployment.
Addressing thousands of miners gathered at the rocky outcrop where their colleagues died last year in hail of police gunfire, former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema told the president and his party: "You've got blood on your hands!"
Malema, who was expelled from the ANC for ill-discipline and has launched a new political movement advocating nationalization of the mines, accused Zuma and his government of failing to take responsibility for the miners' deaths. A government inquiry into the mines violence has made little progress.
"We will never want to be friends of the murderous government," Malema, wearing his trademark red beret, told the crowd, which had greeted him with songs.
Another government critic at the memorial, leading anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele who has also formed a new party to contest the 2014 elections, blamed the Marikana violence on persisting inequalities in South Africa.
Prayers were offered and a moment of silence was observed for the Marikana victims. They were among 60 deaths during a wave of illegal strikes and labor violence in the country's mines that started last year and spilled over into this year.
Lonmin CEO Ben Magara told families of the victims he was sorry for what had happened. The mines violence helped trigger credit downgrades for Africa's biggest economy.
Zuma's government had planned a unifying day of prayer and reflection, but hours before the planned commemoration went ahead at the mine northeast of Johannesburg, a government spokeswoman said no one from the government would be there.
Zuma's ruling ANC said it would not participate because the event was being organized by a group including the hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
"People are taking advantage of a tragedy for their own political benefit," ANC spokesman Ishmael Mnisi told Reuters.
The labor union ally of Zuma's ANC, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which has been displaced by the more hardline AMCU as the dominant union among miners in the area, said it was also staying away, for safety reasons.
"The possibility of losing further lives is great," NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka said.
The two unions have been involved in a deadly war for members among South Africa's mineworkers, accusing each other of being behind killings of members over the past few months.
The more radical AMCU accuses the ANC government and its NUM union allies of siding with mining bosses over the interests of workers fighting for better pay and conditions.
At Marikana, thousands, many of them wearing green AMCU T-shirts, gathered on and around the rocky outcrop dubbed by media the "Hill of Horror" where the strikers were killed last year.
Paulos Mpahlela, 60, was angry. "The government should be here. They should have taken the trouble to come," he said.
The ANC, Nelson Mandela's liberation movement which has dominated South Africa since the end of apartheid, is still expected to win the elections easily next year, but increasingly draws accusations it is now the party of the rich and powerful.
"What it shows is that the ANC, the NUM and the government have lost their legitimacy in that region which has become enemy territory," political analyst Nic Borain told Reuters.
AMCU denies aggressive recruitment tactics are behind the unrest in the mines, which has added tension to the latest round of wage bargaining underway between mining companies and unions.
Rights group Amnesty International urged the government to ensure the Marikana inquiry was fully completed.
"There seems to be a critical lack of political will to ensure that the police and those responsible for the police fully account for their actions," Amnesty's Deputy Programme Director for Africa Noel Kututwa said in a statement.