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Lonmin workers trickle back to mine after 44 killed

August 21, 2012

JOHANNESBURG: A quarter of the workforce returned yesterday to the Marikana platinum mine where 44 men were killed last week in clashes that evoked memories of apartheid-era violence.

Mine owner Lonmin has threatened about 3,000 striking workers with dismissal if they did not show up at Marikana, 100 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, where 34 miners armed with spears, machetes and handguns were gunned down on Thursday in a hail of police fire.

Ten people were killed prior to the police shooting, including a shop steward from the country’s biggest union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who was hacked to death.

The mayhem was sparked by a spreading battle for membership between the NUM and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which has accused its rival of caring more about politics and personal enrichment than workers.

Investigators appointed by President Jacob Zuma, who has declared a week of mourning, are expected at the mine.

Lonmin, the world’s third-largest platinum producer, said in a statement that, with unions, it would address a news conference at 1pm. British time “in a bid to attract people back to work. It said 27.3% at the Marikana mine, which employs 28,000 people, had returned to work.

Separately, more than 250 people began appearing in court near the mine to face charges including murder, attempted murder and assault related to the deadliest security incident since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Local media said about 100 women appeared outside court to appeal for leniency for the men inside who are often the sole breadwinners for extended families trying to make ends meet on their meagre mining salaries.

NUM has said its feud with the militant AMCU union, seen as behind the Lonmin strike, could spread, threatening a setback for labour relations in South Africa.

This could in turn feed into lower levels of investment, possibly lower growth, and a deteriorating fiscal balance.

National mourning

Hundreds of police have camped out at the mine, patrolling in small convoys of vehicles and conducting aerial surveillance by helicopter.

Flags flew at half-mast to remember the dead, who included miners and police.

Members of parliament from all political parties, together with leaders from various churches, are expected to hold a memorial service in Parliament’s Old Assembly Chamber tomorrow in honour of the victims of the violent protests, a top ANC official said.

London-based Lonmin, which accounts for 12% of global platinum output, was forced last week to freeze mining as a result of the violence, but essential services such as ventilation have been maintained so the mines can quickly restart production.

Company officials could not immediately say when ore would start coming out of the ground again.

The stoppage has driven the platinum price to six-week highs over US$1,460 an ounce, but much of the industry remains unprofitable at a time when it is grappling with a wave of labour unrest.

Lonmin had already slashed spending plans before the latest flare-up of violence and may miss its annual production target of 750,000 ounces.

South African junior miner Royal Bafokeng Platinum is the latest miner in the sector to signal cutbacks. It reported a 60 percent drop in first-half earnings yesterday, hit by the slump in platinum prices and reduced production, and said it would accelerate its cost cuts.

– Reuters


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