South Africa hit by strikes

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South Africa's giant mining companies were badly hit by a strike today over rising power, food and fuel prices that threatened to bring the continent's biggest economy to a standstill.

As global mining leaders such as Anglo Platinum (Angloplat) , the world's top producer of the precious metal, counted their losses, powerful unions prepared for marches across the country.

Mines, refineries, car makers, textile factories, businesses and construction of stadiums meant for the 2010 Soccer World Cup could all be affected. Workers and students stayed at home after public transport was disrupted.

Analysts say a complete shutdown of the economy could spook foreign investors and further dent slowing growth, seen at around 3 per cent this year from an average 5 per cent over the past four years.

"Workers have not shown up for early shifts," Lesiba Seshoka, spokesman for the 300,000-strong National Union of Mineworkers told Reuters.

The nearly 2 million-strong Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), an ally of the ruling African National Congress, says the action was a warning to employers not to sack workers because of a downturn in profits due to a power crisis.

In the mining sector - the backbone of the economy - workers are particularly fearful of job cuts after a five-day power cut in January and the rationing of electricity to mines slashed output and earnings in this top precious metals producer.

"We are adamant that workers should not be asked to pay for government's failure to invest in electricity," Cosatu's spokesman Patrick Craven said.

Cosatu has previously said it also wants to fight President Thabo Mbeki's market-friendly and pro-business stance, and has urged the government to subsidise essential commodities while demanding higher wages for workers.

Unions are much closer to ruling party leader Jacob Zuma, who is the frontrunner to succeed Mbeki as president next year. Some investors fear Zuma would mean a shift to the left.

Angloplat said its biggest mine, Rustenburg, had been hit by 30 per cent absenteeism due to the strike.

Harmony, the world's fifth biggest gold producer, said today that all its South African mines had been affected by the protest, and it expected to lose up to 135 kg of gold.

Car maker Volkswagen's South African unit said it would have no production today as a result of the strike, but there was no impact at the country's largest oil refinery located in east coast port city of Durban, officials said.

South Africa's Metrorail suspended all trains in Gauteng province, where the commercial hub Johannesburg is located, as workers failed to show up at work, SAPA news agency said.