South African platinum mine threatens job losses if striking miners miss deadline to return to work at the mine where police shot 34 people last week

  • @AlexDuvalsmith

About one third of the workforce at the South African platinum mine where police shot 34 striking miners last week returned to work yesterday, heeding a warning that they would otherwise be sacked.

Lonmin did not specify which among its Marikana mine’s 28,000 workers reported for duty, as it extended its return-or-be-sacked ultimatum to today. With anything less than 80 per cent of staff, the mine - near Rustenburg about 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg - cannot produce ore. It depends for production on 3,000 rock drillers whose demand for a three-fold pay rise to 12,500 Rand (£950) helped spark the conflict.

Meanwhile, near Pretoria, the first of 259 strikers arrested during last Thursday’s clash appeared in court and the prosecution said some of them would face murder charges in connection with the killing of two police officers at the mine earlier last week.

But around the country thousands of South Africans - in demonstrations, on radio talk shows, on the internet and in workplaces - expressed dismay at the seeming void of emotion on the part of the authorities. It was reminiscent of apartheid, they said, only this time the heartlessness and the onus on maintaining investor confidence was coming from a government, a police force and a trade union whose members led the liberation struggle.

Lonmin, the world’s third largest platinum company, maintains the strike is illegal. Barnard Mokwena, executive vice president of human capital and external affairs, said the company had not received a memorandum of demands from striking rock drill operators and assistant rock drill operators who stopped work on 10 August.

Mr Mokwena said the management would not go to the hilltop where demonstrators have been camped to enter into talks. “The mountain is not even on mine property. Come down the mountain, leave the weapons and just come to the workplace. Only then can we sit down and review the situation and determine the next action. We have asked workers through their structures to come through to engage management,“ he said.

At Marikana, striking workers gathered yesterday near the barren field where 34 miners armed with spears, machetes and handguns died last Thursday in a hail of police fire. Ten people had been killed in the preceding week, including two police officers and a shop steward from the country's biggest union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who were hacked to death. “You work so very hard for very little pay. It is almost like death,” said one.

The violence came about as a result of an increasingly acrimonious battle for membership between the long-established NUM and the 10-year-old Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

A commission of judicial enquiry will be announced later this week. One of its most crucial tasks will be to probe claims that Lonmin had negotiated a pay rise with a breakaway group of rock-drillers despite the existence of a bargaining agreement that has a year to run. Another allegation that has surfaced in the past week is that the AMCU receives funding from mining giant BHP Billiton as part of moves by the mining industry to break the NUM's dominance.

A special sitting of parliament today, preceded by a memorial service, will debate the Marikana tragedy. The presidency has announced a week of national mourning.

The union war plays out against the broader context of the African National Congress's relationship with the 300,000-strong NUM and the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, which is a partner in government. The NUM - which has spoken out against left wing calls for the nationalisation of mines - supports President Jacob Zuma who wants to be re-elected as party leader in December.

One of the loudest proponents of nationalisation, ousted ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, has been given extra oxygen by the events at Marikana. On Saturday, during a rally at the mine, he told strikers to leave the NUM and ''join a union that will fight for workers' rights''. Malema, an erstwhile ally of President Zuma, called for his resignation.

Ordinary South Africans have expressed shock at the events. Many have remarked that President Zuma's speech at Marikana last Friday - which was broadcast live on national television - seemed intended to soothe investors rather than bring balm to widows who had lost their husbands in the shooting. There has also been shock at the defiant tone of a speech made on Sunday by police chief Riah Phiyega at the funeral of Warrant Officer Sello Ronnie Lepaku, killed a week ago by Marikana protesters. ”Safety of the public is not negotiable. Do not be sorry about what happened. We confront, every day, heartless criminals who are gunning for our lives,“ she told mourners.