MARIKANA - Striking South African platinum miners stayed off the job on Monday and marched to press wage demands at major producer Lonmin as 15 000 workers at the world’s fourth biggest bullion producer, Gold Fields, also downed tools.
Thousands of Lonmin workers were defying a Monday deadline to return to shafts that have been idle for a month at the Marikana mine, 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Johannesburg. Growing labour unrest is challenging the ruling ANC’s claim to be able to defend workers’ interests while ensuring stable economic growth. It culminated in mid-August in violent clashes with police in which 44 people were killed at Marikana, most of them strikers shot by police officers. The killings conjured up painful memories of similar incidents under racist apartheid rule, which ended in 1994. Police have said they opened fire in self-defence, but fresh testimony that officers shot men who were fleeing or surrendering seems likely to deepen anger against the security forces and the African National Congress (ANC). On Monday morning about 4 000 of the Lonmin strikers, some armed with sticks, spears or machetes, stood their ground 50 metres (yards) away from heavily armed riot police backed up by armoured vehicles.
The marching strikers chanted ‘The White Men are shaking!’ and ‘The police who shot us are shaking!’. Lonmin said only 6.3 percent of its shift workers had reported for work on Monday. This compared with 2 percent on Friday. Labour unrest fanned in part by glaring income disparities in Africa’s largest economy has been spreading from the platinum belt to the gold sector, unnerving investors despite attempts by government officials to reassure them. Gold Fields last week resolved an illegal strike by 12 000 workers at its KDC East mine, which started because rank and file members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said the union was not defending their interests.
On Monday the company reported another unlawful stoppage, this time at its KDC West operation, where 15 000 workers downed tools, shutting production. Gold Fields said the reasons for the latest strike were unclear but intimidation was being used to keep workers off the job. ‘We haven’t been given any demands but the pattern is the same as KDC East. It is intimidation. The strikers went around from hostel to hostel yesterday to prevent the others going to work,’ Gold Fields spokesman Sven Lunsche said. Gold Fields’ share price shed more than 2.5 percent despite gold’s spot price holding near 6-1/2 month highs. In the platinum sector, the labour conflict has had its origins in a turf war for members between the dominant NUM and the more militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which is mounting a challenge.
There is swelling discontent against the NUM among poorly-paid mineworkers who see its leaders as out of touch and too close links to the governing ANC and its political agenda.
The violent rise of AMCU is the most serious challenge to the unwritten pact at the heart of the post-apartheid settlement - that unions aligned to the ANC deliver modestly higher wages for workers, while ensuring labour stability for big business. Opponents of President Jacob Zuma, particularly Julius Malema, the expelled former leader of the ANC Youth League, are using the labour unrest to attack the record of Zuma’s government ahead of a party leadership conference in December.
Lonmin, the world’s third largest platinum producer, has had 327 million pounds (US$524 million) knocked off its market capitalisation since the strike started.
The price of platinum, used in emissions-capping catalytic converters in cars, has been depressed because of weak demand, but has risen 14 percent since the stoppage began. Many South African platinum shafts are simply unprofitable and analysts say Lonmin cannot afford the demands made by the 3 000 rock drill operators who started the strike. They want a basic wage of 12 500 rand (US$1,500) a month, more than double what they currently get, and other workers at the bottom of the pay scale are also now demanding similar raises.