South African mine workers have gone back to work at the Lonmin platinum plant in Marikana, the scene of violent protests in which dozens of miners were killed by police.
The return to work came as the final day of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) conference took place in Midland, Johannesburg.
COSATU was expected to decide whether it will open its own inquiry into the Marikana shooting and the state of the country’s mining industry.
Many striking miners left the unions that represented them after the incident.
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hannah, reporting from Johannesburg, said: “The government has put police in place with regard to the mine companies.
“The government’s position is that some of the mining companies like Lonmin who own the Marikana mine have not met their full agreement as they have agreed with the government as a whole.
“Now you are going to see pressure from the company ramping up to carry through things like renovating the hospitals where workers stay and better living conditions in and around the mines.”
Police, however, clashed with miners and residents near a mine of the world’s top platinum firm Anglo American as miners at nearby Lonmin went back to work.
The protesters blocked roads, and police fired teargas and stun grenades to disperse them, as the Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) workers faced a Thursday-night deadline to call off an illegal strike and return to work.
“There was an illegal gathering that took place this morning,” police spokesman Dennis Adriao told the AFP news agency. “Police used teargas as well as water cannon to disperse individuals. Stun grenades were used as well.”
While the army had already been present at the scene of strikes, President Jacob Zuma also announced earlier on Thursday that he had ordered soldiers to assist police trying to control the labour unrest in the nation’s
crucial mining sector.
On Wednesday, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters near a mine run by Anglo American Platinum, as unrest spread after strikers at rival Lonmin won big pay rises.
Within hours of Lonmin agreeing pay rises of up to 22 per cent, workers at nearby mines called for similar pay increases, spelling more trouble after six weeks of industrial action that claimed more than 40 lives and rocked South Africa’s economy.
Police clashed with a crowd of men carrying traditional weapons such as spears and machetes in a township at a nearby Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) mine outside the city of Rustenburg.
Officers fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse an “illegal gathering”, police spokesman Dennis Adriao said. He had no information on any injuries.
Anglo American later issued an ultimatum to their striking workers to end the illegal strike.
“Anglo American Platinum has communicated to its employees the requirement to return to work by the night shift on Thursday 20 September, failing which legal avenues will be pursued,” the firm said in a statement.
The ultimatum by the world’s top platinum producer came after police arrested 22 people in protests after it had urged workers to return to five mines that were shut down over safety fears last week.
The number of dead from the unrest rose to 46 when a woman was struck by a rubber bullet on Wednesday as police dispersed mine protesters, Central Methodist Church Bishop Paul Verryn, who has been counseling striking miners, told the Reuters news agency.
“We want management to meet us as well now,” an organiser for the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) at Impala Platinum, the second biggest platinum producer, told Reuters.
“We want 9,000 rand ($1,100) a month as a basic wage instead of the roughly 5,000 rand we are getting,” said the organiser, who declined to be named fearing recriminations from the firm.
A labour activist said workers who had stayed off the job at Amplats, which accounts for 40 per cent of global supplies of the metal used for catalytic converters in cars and jewellery, were inspired by Lonmin and would press on with their demands.
Union rivalry is still rife despite the brokered pay deal
“The mood here is upbeat, very celebratory,” Mametlwe Sebei, a community representative near Rustenburg, said. “Victory is in sight. The workers are celebrating Lonmin as a victory.”
President Jacob Zuma expressed relief at the pay deal after criticism from the opposition and media of the government’s handling of the crisis – not least in the aftermath of the police killing of 34 Marikana miners on August 16.
Further fuelling union rivalry, jubilant workers at Lonmin’s Marikana mine, 100km northwest of Johannesburg, painted the wage deal as a victory for AMCU over the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), an ally of the ruling African National Congress.
Lonmin shares rose more than nine per cent in early trade on news of the pay deal, but gave up most of those gains as the reality of the extra costs to a company struggling with a shaky balance sheet and unprofitable mine shafts sunk in.
Platinum prices rose a little on Wednesday after falling 2.6 per cent a day earlier on news of the Lonmin deal.