Unrest, roadblocks as S. Africa miners return to work

MARIKANA, South Africa (AFP) – Residents blocked roads and South African police fired rubber bullets at the world’s top platinum firm Anglo American on Thursday, the same day miners there faced a deadline to return to work.

The unrest at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) in Rustenburg, about 120 kilometres (75 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, seemed to be escalating just as a deadly six-week strike at a nearby platinum mine run by Lonmin wound down.

Black smoke billowed in the Sondela informal settlement next to a shaft, as miners and residents blocked roads with rocks and burning tyres to keep the police out.

“They shot at us with rubber bullets, and afterwards they poured teargas, that’s why we put the rocks,” said resident Mable Makgetla, 30, whose husband works for a mining contractor.

Police arrested 22 people in the area on Wednesday but did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the fresh unrest.

“Teachers and children were inside class when they (police) shot,” said striking Amplats miner Daniel Khasiphe, 38, of a primary school that was closed after the police operation.

The unrest had spread to Amplats from nearby platinum giant Lonmin, where workers returned to work Thursday after a deal was brokered to end a crippling strike in which 46 people died, 34 of whom were gunned down by police.

The Lonmin workers’ wage demands and threats of deeper strike action have been taken up by other gold and platinum miners, raising fears of a major economic fall-out as the rising tensions forced several shaft closures over safety fears.

Amplats gave its workers an ultimatum to return to work by the Thursday night shift after declaring the strike action illegal.

“No one is willing to go back, absolutely no-one,” workers representative Gaddhafi Mdoda said, adding that the area was relatively calm aside for at one shaft.

The Lonmin deal has raised alarms of a dangerous precedent for the hammering out of worker wage demands, with the deal secured after workers bypassed recognised union structures and after shocking bloodshed.

“It is giving us an advantage just because … Amplats can pay more than that,” Mdoda said.

Workers will not go below demands for 12,500 rands (1,200 euros, $1,500), the same amount Lonmin staff had been pushing for, he said.

Though Lonmin’s deal fell slightly short of that figure, the mine was a hive of activity Thursday with packed buses ferrying miners to work.

Workers chatted loudly as the queue shuffled to the turnstile entrance for the 07:00 am (0500 GMT) shift.

“We’re happy to go to work. We got what we wanted,” said Yandisa Mehlo, 37.

Others were less satisfied, but returned to work out of desperation after going without pay for over a month.

“I return to work because I’m so hungry,” said Phumlile Macefane, 24, saying he was unhappy that he had not got the full amount.

Company spokeswoman Sue Vey said attendance had hit 77 percent after turnout had plunged to below one percent during the strike, which dated to August 10, at the world’s number three platinum producer.

“No production is happening today because people are receiving safety briefings and briefings by the management regarding the strike and so forth,” she said.

The breakthrough was bitterly won after the illegal strike sparked the worst police violence since the end of apartheid in 1994, with 34 people shot dead at the Marikana plant, a roughly two-hour drive from Johannesburg.

The latest fatality came Wednesday when a woman died after she was shot by police using rubber bullets at the weekend in a government-ordered crackdown.

Also Thursday, President Jacob Zuma said he was deploying troops to the platinum belt to help support the police crackdown after soldiers were sent to the area at the weekend.

“This is not a state of emergency,” Zuma spokesman Mac Maharaj said.

The government has supported the crackdown, raising the alarm on production losses on mines which form the backbone of its economy and accounts nearly one fifth of GDP if related activities are factored in.

The protests have also spread to Gold Fields near Johannesburg, which is losing 1,400 ounces of gold daily since 15,000 miners downed tools 11 days ago, also echoing the Lonmin strikers’ demands for 12,500 rands.

The company hoped a meeting between workers and the National Union of Mineworkers on Thursday would bear fruit.

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