RUSTENBURG – South African police fired rubber bullets and teargas on Tuesday at striking Amplats miners who were protesting against a union-brokered deal to end a six-week wildcat walkout at the top platinum producer.
As they moved into a shanty town near the mines, police also deployed water cannons and stun grenades against groups of protesters armed with wooden sticks and stones. Women and children fled as they fanned out through the maze of tin huts.
One protester was dragged away bleeding heavily and unable to walk, and was treated by paramedics, a Reuters witness said.
The strikers at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) mines near Rustenburg, 120 km (70 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, had been due to return to work following a company offer to reinstate 12 000 workers sacked for downing tools six weeks ago.
“We are not giving up, we will soldier on,” said striker John Tonsi, who had been shot in the leg by a rubber bullet. “We will fight for our cause until management comes to its senses.”
Months of labour unrest in the mines have hit platinum and gold output, threatened growth in Africa’s biggest economy and drawn criticism of President Jacob Zuma for his handling of the most damaging strikes since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Amplats said at the weekend it had reached a deal with several unions and would be offering sweeteners, such as a one-off hardship payment of R2 000, to end a strike that has crippled production.
A return to work on Tuesday was one of the conditions attached to the deal.
However, at Amplats’ Thembelani mine, hundreds of miners barricaded a road with burning tyres, and police said an electricity sub-station at another mine was set alight.
Amplats said it was still working out attendance numbers at its four strike-hit Rustenburg mines. For the past few weeks, fewer than 20% of staff have been turning up.
The strikes have shone a harsh spotlight on South Africa’s persistent income inequality and the promise by Nelson Mandela‘s African National Congress (ANC) to build “a better life for all” following the end of white-minority rule.
The strikes have also been a major test for Zuma, who faces an ANC leadership election in December.
Even though his handling of the unrest has caused internal party concern, he remains favourite to win re-election, teeing him up for another five years as national president from 2014.
Management threats of mass dismissals, along with pay sweeteners, have ended most of the strikes in the last two weeks, but workers at Thembelani said they were determined to hold out.
Their main demand is for Amplats to match a salary increase of up to 22% offered by rival Lonmin after a violent wildcat walkout at its nearby Marikana platinum mine in August.
The Lonmin offer came in the wake of the police killing of 34 miners on August 16, the bloodiest security incident since apartheid. Lonmin said on Tuesday it wanted to raise $800-million through a rights issue to help it recover from the strikes .
MacDonald Motsaathebe, who has been with Amplats for 12 years, said workers did not agree to the deal struck at the weekend between Amplats and unions including the National Union of Mineworkers.
“We didn’t agree to the offer. We want R16 000. Lonmin miners got it, and we want it,” said the 35-year-old, whose salary supports nine people. “We earn peanuts.”
Strikers at gold firms including AngloGold Ashanti and Gold Fields returned to work last week after threats of mass dismissals and an offer of a small pay increase.