A protester licks his spear outside the Lonmin mine in Rustenburg. Photo: Reuters

Rustenburg - An emotional and a heartfelt plea was made to striking workers near a Lonmin mine in Marikana in North West moments before many were gunned down by police.

“I told them to leave... I pleaded, I pleaded,” said Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) on Friday.

He was overcome by tears at a news briefing in Johannesburg as he recounted events on Thursday that led up to the shooting which saw 34 people killed near the mine.

“I pleaded with them: 'The writing is on the wall, they are going to kill you',” he had told protesters.

Mathunjwa had visited the protesters accompanied by other Amcu leaders at the time.

Workers had refused to leave, vowing to stay on the hill even if they were killed because their mission was to feed their families.

“We got in our cars and left... After a few minutes the phone rang (about the shooting). I wanted to turn back and go and die with my comrades,” said Mathunjwa, wiping away tears with a handkerchief.

But those in the car with him decided to drive to safety.

Police fired on the protesters, many of whom were armed, while trying to disperse them after a week of violent protests that led to the deaths of ten people.

Mathunjwa and those in the car with him noticed a car following them and had to use different routes to return to Johannesburg. They arrived back at 3am on Friday.

Police put the death toll at 34, while the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said it was 36.

Mathunjwa said Amcu protesters were without police or a security escort, or any supervision on Thursday while NUM had security.

“This security is for the individually connected.”

He said there was no union rivalry, but that the NUM had “internal issues” which had nothing to do with Amcu.

“It's not a rival issue with NUM and Amcu. It's a domestic issue with (in) NUM,” he said.

Mathunjwa dismissed reports that Amcu was funded by expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.

“The allegations are baseless and unfounded. We have no political relationship with any political movement inside this country or outside.”

“We are committed to any process that will stabilise the area and bring peace and calm to the area,” said Mathunjwa.

Amcu was a recognised trade union at Lonmin with 7000 members, most of them at Lonmin's Karee mine.

It had about 30,000 members nationally.

Mathunjwa called on President Jacob Zuma to investigate the bloodbath.

“It is with great regret and shock that the situation... had resulted in the loss of lives of so many mine workers.

“It is our strong belief that this unfortunate killing could have been avoided... 1/8if the matter 3/8 was treated with the sensitivity it deserved.”

He also called on the nation to observe an hour of mourning for those who were killed. A minute of silence was observed at the start of the media briefing.

Amcu planned to visit the families of the deceased and assist with funeral costs.

Workers claimed to be earning R4000 a month, while those living outside the hostel were earning an extra R1000. They were demanding a salary of R12,500 a month.

The bloodbath made international headlines, and led to a drop in Lonmin's share price.

South Africa accounts for about three-quarters of the world's platinum, which is used to make catalytic converters in cars.

London-based Lonmin told the Guardian that 96 percent of its production comes from Marikana. - Sapa