South Africa acts tough over miners’ strike

Justice Minister announces a crackdown on “illegal gatherings” following five weeks of industrial action by miners.

South Africa gold miners strike
Negotiations with striking miners had restarted on Thursday at a site near the Lonmin mine [EPA]

The South African government has announced a security clampdown in a bid to deal with five weeks of industrial action that has hit the country’s platinum sector.

Hours after the announcement on Friday, South African media reports said police fired tear gas to disperse striking miners outside an Aquarius Platinum mine near Rustenburg, north-west of Johannesburg.

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe announced a crackdown on “illegal gatherings” and the carrying of weapons, but failed to say how the police would put it into effect.

Radebe told reporters the government would no longer tolerate the illegal protests where miners brandish machetes, knives, spears and clubs. Such marches have become daily events as the strike at Lonmin PLC platinum mine enters its fifth week.

“Our government is making a clarion call to all South African to desist from all these illegal acts and must work with law enforcement agencies to ensure that this situation is brought to normality,” he said.

Meanwhile, at the Aquarius Platinum mine, police dispersed protesters who had marched from Anglo American Platinum’s (Amplats) Blesbok stadium, demanding that Aquarius close down operations, media reports said. 

Aquarius Platinum said on Friday that it was temporarily suspending its mining operations. But operations were expected to recommence on Sunday.

“The decision to suspend mining operations has been taken to ensure the safety and security of employees and assets given the rising tensions and protests within the regional workforce and communities,” a statement from the mine said.

Talks continue

The nearby Lonmin operated Marikana mine has been closed for more than a month, after 45 people died in strike related violence there, and Amplats also suspended its operations on Wednesday.

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The wave of labour unrest in Africa’s biggest economy has spiralled beyond the control of the government and unions into a grass-roots rebellion by black South Africans who have seen little improvement in their lives since apartheid ended 18 years ago.

Negotiations continued for a second day at a site near the Lonmin mine, when workers, bosses and unions sat down to try and hammer out a wage agreement.

Lonmin on Friday offered to increase striking workers’ salaries to less than half their demanded basic wage, despite calls for a national strike in the sector, deepening an industrial crisis that has escalated over the past few months.

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) General Secretary Frans Baleni said Lonmin had proposed a pay hike for entry-level workers to around 5,500 rand ($660) from 4,600 rand – a fraction of the 12,500 rand demanded by the workers.

“We are not interested,” striker representative Molifi Phele said as hundreds demonstrators chanted and danced around him in the heart of the ‘platinum belt’.

“What he is offering cannot buy you anything. All we want is 12,500.”

The miners at Lonmin’s Marikana operations in the heart of the platinum belt near Rustenburg, 100km northwest of Johannesburg, have refused to go back to work until they receive a basic pay hike to 12,500 rand.

‘Unpredictable’ situation

Al Jazeera’s Tania Page, reporting from Marikana said the Lonmin offer was met with “audible groans” from the miners.

“The scale of the offer is clearly unacceptable. It was just not enough compared to what they are asking for, which is roughly $1,500 [per month]. It fell far short of that.

“The message here is that they will hold out until they get the whole $1,500 per month. Some said they will go to  loan sharks in order to send money home. In all, it was not a positive move today in Marikana,” she said.

On Thursday, the first day of negotiations, Page said it was a bit of a breakthrough that the miners and Lonmin were talking again, even though the process could go on for a few days until an agreement was reached.

Baleni admitted it was unclear whether talks would succeed in an atmosphere poisoned by the police killing of 34 miners last month.

“It’s a very unpredictable situation. In normal negotiations you go there knowing that it is give and take. In this instance it’s difficult for us to predict the reaction,” he said.

On Thursday, protest leader Mametlwe Sebei told the crowd at the Blesbok stadium rally that miners would begin a general strike on Sunday. The action was designed to “bring the mining companies to their knees”, he said.

The strikers insisted their push for a sharp hike in wages was peaceful. “There should be no blood,” one placard read.

South African President Jacob Zuma said on Thursday that illegal strikes and intimidation spreading through the mining industry would not help workers and make the “country worse off”.

Speaking to parliament, the president said that strikers’ concerns should be addressed within South Africa’s labour relations framework.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies


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