Workers return after strike turned deadly

August 21, 2012

Facing the threat of dismissal, about a third of the workforce returned to South Africa's Marikana platinum mine on Aug. 20, resuming operations at the site where police shot dead 34 striking miners in clashes that evoked memories of apartheid-era violence.

Mine owner Lonmin has threatened about 3,000 striking workers with dismissal if they did not show up at Marikana, 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, where miners armed with spears, machetes and handguns died in a clash with police on Aug. 16. Additionally, 10 people were killed prior to the police shooting, including a shop steward from the country's biggest union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who was hacked to death, as a dispute between mining unions turned deadly, Reuters reported.

Lonmin said it did not yet have enough workers at their posts to produce ore, and officials from the small Solidarity union of highly skilled workers said at least 80 percent of the workforce is needed to bring platinum out of the shafts.

The violence was sparked by a spreading battle for membership between the NUM and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which has accused its rival of caring more about politics and personal enrichment than workers.

Lonmin said in a statement that operations had resumed and it had extended its deadline for the strikers at the mine, which employs 28,000, to return to work by one day.

A spokesman for President Jacob Zuma, who has declared a week of mourning, said a ministerial committee appointed by the president had arrived on the scene to assist families and the community affected by the troubles.

More than 250 people began appearing in court near the mine to face charges including murder, attempted murder and assault related to the deadliest security incident since the end of apartheid in 1994.

NUM has said its feud with the militant AMCU union, seen as behind the Lonmin strike, could spread, threatening a setback for labor relations in South Africa.

This could in turn feed into lower levels of investment, possibly lower growth, and a deteriorating fiscal balance for Africa's largest economy.
Hundreds of police have camped out at the mine, patrolling in small convoys of vehicles and conducting aerial surveillance by helicopter.

London-based Lonmin, which accounts for 12 percent of global platinum output, was forced last week to freeze mining as a result of the violence, but essential services such as ventilation were maintained so the mines could quickly restart production.

The stoppage has driven platinum prices to six-week highs of more than $1,460 an ounce, but much of the industry remains unprofitable at a time when it is grappling with a wave of labor unrest.

Lonmin had already slashed spending plans before the latest flare-up of violence and may miss its annual production target of 750,000 ounces.
South African junior miner Royal Bafokeng Platinum is the latest miner in the sector to signal cutbacks. It reported a 60 percent drop in first-half earnings on Monday, hit by the slump in platinum prices and reduced production, and said it would accelerate its cost cuts.



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