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Miners arrive for a march at Rustenburg in South Africa's North West Province, September 13, 2012.SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

After weeks of an escalating national crisis in its mining sector, South Africa's government has announced a sweeping crackdown on weapons and "illegal gatherings" by thousands of striking mineworkers.

But despite the vow to get tough, the strikes continued to spread to new mines, and more violent clashes with police erupted. Aquarius Platinum suspended operations at one of its mines to protect its workers, and Xstrata shut down a nearby chrome mine.

The government is refusing to say whether it will deploy the army or arrest key political opponents such as Julius Malema, but it left the door open to both options. Reports in South African media Friday said the government could arrest Mr. Malema and send soldiers into the mining regions in an attempt to halt the violent wildcat strikes that have forced the closings of the mines of some of the world's biggest platinum and gold firms.

Many of the striking workers have marched with machetes, spears, sticks and clubs as they hunt down those who fail to join the strike. Another body of a stabbed worker was found this week at a spot where the strikers have gathered.

"It appears now that the mining industry is at stake," Justice Minister Jeff Radebe told a press conference on Friday. "We can no longer tolerate acts of intimidation, illegal gatherings, the carrying of dangerous weapons in South Africa," he said.

"They are going to be dealt with very swiftly, without any delay … Those who want to go to work must be allowed to do so without any intimidation."

Mr. Radebe, flanked by an extraordinary gathering of South Africa's most powerful cabinet ministers, refused to rule out the use of live ammunition by police, although he denied that the government would declare a state of emergency.

He also refused to explain how the government would define an "illegal gathering" and how it would disperse the thousands of protesters who have succeeded in shutting down mines that employ more than 50,000 workers.

The mining crisis has been escalating for more than a month, but the government has reacted with a haphazard mixture of alternately repressive and tolerant responses, worsening the crisis. Last month, in the most notorious response, its police killed 34 protesters in a clash at the Lonmin platinum mine near Rustenberg, northwest of Johannesburg.

Asked whether the government would call in the army, the cabinet ministers said this was an "operational" issue that the police would decide.

Mr. Malema and some union leaders have called for a national strike across the South African mining sector, beginning as early as this weekend. It's unclear whether there is enough support to mobilize a general strike, but the strikes are already causing severe losses to the mining companies, with Lonmin having lost an estimated $90-million so far.

Mr. Malema, who was expelled as leader of the youth wing of the ruling African National Congress, has emerged as a major opponent of President Jacob Zuma, and many ANC members have accused him of inciting the mine workers for his own political interests.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan told the press conference that the wildcat strikes are "extremely damaging to the economy."

Lonmin made a pay offer to its striking workers on Thursday, but it was rejected Friday. Miners said the offer was substantially below their demand of 12,500 rand (about $1,500) per month.

Militancy and violence among striking workers have been huge problems for South Africa for many years. Half of union members believe violence is necessary to win gains in strikes, according to a survey of more than 3,000 members of South Africa's leading congress of trade unions, released on Friday. Brutality by South Africa's police has compounded the crisis. Many of the arrested mine workers at Lonmin say they were beaten or tortured in police custody. Some of the 34 protesters killed last month were shot in the back or hunted down and shot at point-blank range, reports say.