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September 19, 2012

South Africa Platinum Miners Welcome Deal

by Anita Powell

South Africa platinum giant Lonmin says it brokered a deal with workers late Tuesday after more than a month of illegal, violent strikes that stunned the nation and the platinum industry. Workers are slated to return to work Thursday. 

After nearly six weeks of illegal strikes, under the looming threat of dismissal for the unsanctioned action, workers at Lonmin's Marikana township platinum mine agreed to less than the $1,500 a month they had demanded.

The company had said that wage demand was unaffordable.

A statement from Lonmin says the agreement late Tuesday gave workers a signing bonus of about $250 and raises ranging from 11 to 22 percent.

Striker Gilbert Temo, who is a general worker at the mine, says he’s happy with the deal and looking forward to returning to work on Thursday.

The 25-year-old says that under the deal, he’ll see a paycheck of nearly $1,200 before taxes.  He says the more experienced rock drill operators who were the force behind the strike will get as much as $1,300, pre-tax.

“Yeah, I am happy because, man, I was so, so, so broke.  So yeah, people are happy, even also the [rock drill] operators,” said Temo.

But Lonmin’s acting chief executive Simon Scott said in a statement that the agreement is “only one step in a long and difficult process.”

Rehad Desai of the Marikana Solidarity Campaign says the settlement was a victory, but that his campaign still aims to bring justice to the families of 45 people who were killed in strike-related violence.  That includes 34 protesters shot dead by police on August 16 after workers massed outside the Marikana mine.  Police have said they fired in self-defense; investigations are ongoing.

​​“It’s been a long strike, it’s been six weeks, but while the strike is over, the campaign to get justice is just beginning,” he said.

Desai says the strike has been a “huge wake-up call” for the nation and has shown South Africa’s democracy to be fragile.

Sinethemba Zonke is an analyst with Africa Practice, a business and government consultancy firm. He says the Lonmin miners’ success could inspire workers at other mines.  Striking workers at Anglo American Platinum told local media Wednesday that they hope they can push their employer to pay them more.

Zonke also says the strike could widen existing fissures in society and politics -- which could threaten the ruling African National Congress.  The party has won every major election since 1994, making the nation effectively a one-party state.

“As you have seen, once again, this settlement has come without the involvement, in a way, of the main union NUM (the National Union of Mineworkers), which is affiliated to the ANC.  This shows that maybe the ANC itself might be not the vanguard of the people as it has highlighted itself to be,” said Zonke.

A group of top ministers appointed by the government said they welcomed the deal.  But Minister to the Presidency Collins Chabane said in the statement that “there are lessons to be drawn from this experience.”

As a major ANC party conference approaches in December, it is clear those lessons will be at the forefront of discussions.