Less than nine months after the shooting that shocked the world, conflict and tension are back at the richest mines in Africa. Thirty four miners were shot and killed, on August 16, following a week of wildcat strikes in Marikana, South Africa. Now the platinum belt is at war once again.
Miners at Lonmin downed tools for two days following the death of a union leader. The wildcat strike sent share prices tumbling a day after the company had posted positive results. Lonmin shares fell more than 10% over the two days while the rand retreated to a three-week low against the dollar, on fears that the unrest might spread across a sector that accounts for nearly half of South Africa’s foreign exchange earnings.
As an inquiry into the deaths of the 34 miners continued around 40kms away, in Rustenburg, hundreds of miners belonging to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) marched to the infamous koppie, where the massacre occurred.
In 2012, the strike was over wages; this time around it was union rivalry. Amcu accused the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) of killing one of their office bearers. NUM denies it. Amcu, which has 70% of the membership at Lonmin, is demanding NUM leave their offices at the mine.
In the scorching heat of Marikana, it was a menacing site as miners chanted and danced their way to Wonderkop Stadium. More than 6,000 Amcu members chanted anti-NUM slogans and sang: “Who killed Steve, the man we loved so much”. This referred to the killing of 46-year-old Mawethu Steven, a shop steward who was shot dead while watching football at a tavern on May 11.
“If they have proof of us committing the killings then they must take it to the police,” says Lesiba Seshoka, spokesperson of NUM.
Following a marathon of meetings with Lonmin management, Amcu regional leaders addressed members at the packed stadium just after 4PM on a day where they vowed not to return to work until Lonmin management had kicked out NUM.
Addressing members, who were sitting on the grass using a loudspeaker system, an Amcu leader said the meeting they had attended yielded no results, as Lonmin management had declined to shut down NUM offices.
“The main issue at the meeting was our demand for the closure of NUM offices. After a meeting that started at 5AM, there’s nothing we’re bringing to you. What they [Lonmin] are saying is that they want you to go back to work,” says the leader.
Members reacted angrily and refused to go back to work at the 13 shafts that lay idle at Lonmin. Following deliberations, the leaders invited six workers from the 13 shafts, which have been affected by the strike to respond to the outcome of the meeting.
All six workers said their co-workers would not return to work because management and government are colluding with NUM. They added that they [Lonmin and government] are allowing their members to carry dangerous weapons to the shafts.
“The employer is clearly showing that he is sleeping with NUM and government. We are not going back to work until NUM vacates the mine,” he says.
Another miner refusing to go back to work said: “What management is saying is the same as farting under water—you can’t hear it”.
Three days later, miners made a U-turn and returned underground.
Meanwhile at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) Rustenburg, the planned retrenchment of 6,000 miners is set to get ugly. Miners are prepared to fight back and embark on a massive strike that will halt production and send shockwaves around platinum shares.
Workers committee member Evans Ramokga says the company is not backing down on retrenchments, and workers had taken it upon themselves to fight. He says after mass meetings at different shafts, workers have decided to go on strike.
“Unions have done their part and negotiated on our behalves. Now the workers have decided to lead their cause. No one is happy about the retrenchments. Workers are saying if Amplats cannot run the mines they must leave and surrender the mines to another company that will save jobs,” says Ramokga.
Meanwhile on May 21, security guards fired rubber bullets at strikers at Lanxess mine, Rustenburg—one of the biggest suppliers of chrome ore. Five people were injured. The illegal strike was over bonuses.
Days of unrest lie ahead.