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October 18, 2012

Striking S. Africa Miners Heed Ultimatum, Return to Work

by Anita Powell

One of South Africa's largest gold producers says thousands of its workers have heeded a deadline to return to work after weeks of illegal strikes.  But workers at the platinum mine that started South Africa's wave of illegal strikes have disrupted activities yet again.  

South Africa mining company Gold Fields said they had seen promising numbers of employees return to work in response to a Thursday afternoon deadline to go back or be fired.

The company said in a statement early Thursday that they had seen a full turnout of 2,800 workers at one mine shaft and all 6,200 workers at another three shafts.

Gold Fields had issued the ultimatum to some 14,000 workers involved in the wildcat strike.  A Gold Fields official did not answer calls seeking comment on the status of the other workers, but told local media that by noon about half of those workers had returned to their posts.

However, that gain was offset by reports of disruptions at the platinum mine whose workers sparked strikes that spread across South Africa, alarming investors.

At the Lonmin mine in Marikana, company spokeswoman Sue Vey said workers refused to go underground Thursday morning in protest of the recent arrest of three miners.  She said the company could not say how many miners were involved in the incidents, but said the company had not heard reports of any injuries.

“We can confirm that there have been sporadic labor disruptions this morning, mainly sort of centered on our Karee shaft area, and currently the protest, it’s a protest against the arrest of three mine workers that happened earlier this week by the SAPS [South African Police Service] and you know, that’s what we believe is the reason for the disruption at the moment," said Vey. "But obviously it’s currently happening, we really have little other information at this stage.”

The disruption comes at a critical time for that community: an inquiry into recent strike violence is due to resume next week.  The Marikana Commission of Inquiry is looking into the deaths of 44 people during the six weeks of illegal strikes that started in August.

In the main act of violence, police shot dead 34 protesters on August 16 after the workers launched a wildcat strike seeking higher wages.  Police have said they fired in self-defense.

The strike was resolved in late September and some workers got a 22 percent raise, but the human toll was huge: in addition to those killed, 78 people were wounded and some 270 were arrested.

The Lonmin strike prompted other strikes by mineworkers and led to huge losses for major mining companies. The South African rand has also seen record lows, possibly as a consequence.

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