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South Africa Mining Unrest Far from Over

  • Anita Powell

Mineworkers take part in a march outside the Anglo American mine in South Africa's North West Province, September 12, 2012.

Mineworkers take part in a march outside the Anglo American mine in South Africa's North West Province, September 12, 2012.

Labor unrest is threatening to spread across South Africa's mining sector after a firebrand youth leader called for workers across the nation to make the mines "ungovernable."

At the Lonmin platinum mine where the strikes started, workers' attendance has plunged to its lowest level yet. Just 1.8 percent of workers turned up at the mine in Marikana township Wednesday - a clear sign that South Africa’s mining woes are far from over.

South Africa's Mining Industry

  • Number of workers: 498,141
  • Industry deaths: 128
  • Key commodities mined: Diamonds, gold, platinum, palladium
  • Real mining GDP: $12.06 billion
  • Mineral exports: $36.25 billion

Source: Chamber of Mines of South Africa Figures for 2010
The company said in a statement it is continuing to seek a negotiated solution after weeks of strikes and violence have led to at least 45 deaths, including that of a man found hacked to death outside the Marikana mine on Tuesday.

The illegal action has caught on at other mining companies in the mineral-rich nation, encouraged in part by ex-youth leader Julius Malema.

Malema calls movement a "revolution"

Malema did not mince words when he spoke to miners on Tuesday. He called for a national mining strike. He has repeatedly called on workers to make South Africa’s mining sector “ungovernable” and calls his movement a “revolution.”

The workers appear to be listening.

Mining giant Impala Platinum says its workers are now demanding a raise - which if granted, would be their second increase in six months.

Impala spokesman Bob Gilmour says it’s possible that the strikers were motivated by their brothers-in-arms at Lonmin.

“It’s possible that is part of the reason, because there’s a lot of hype... as you gather in the mining industry, so it’s possible it’s coming from there. So that’s the demand that they came forward with, and currently what we’re doing is we’re sitting down and meeting with all stakeholders to discuss the issues and do a full review of everything. So that’s where we stand at this point in time," said Gilmour.

Political, social unrest

The strikes are happening against a backdrop of political and social unrest in South Africa. Poor South Africans have held increasingly violent protests over their lack of basic services. And politicians are jockeying for power ahead of an important party conference later this year.

Gilmour says there are many forces at work driving the labor unrest.

"It’s a very difficult question," he said. "I think there’s a whole lot of issues coming into play here, in terms of… maybe there are some concerns about salary, but I think the issues are more about service delivery and local communities etcetera and possibly political… also events in the background being played out. So it’s not a straightforward issue regarding salaries. I think salaries, or wages, are just being used as a rallying call, put it that way.”

Impact on world platinum market

Regardless of the cause, the strike at Lonmin has immobilized the South Africa platinum mine and shaken world markets.

A peace accord signed last week stipulated that workers return to work by Monday. That deadline was extended to Tuesday but has still not been followed.

Workers launched a wildcat strike in August after union negotiations broke down. On August 16, strikers clashed with police at the mine some 100 kilometers from Johannesburg, leading police to shoot dead 34 demonstrators. The government has ordered an investigation into the matter.

The workers are demanding a threefold pay raise to about $1,500 a month. Meanwhile, their absence from work has seriously impacted the platinum market and Lonmin’s productivity.