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May 15, 2014

Pressure, Tension Grow in South Africa Miners' Strike

by Anita Powell

South Africa’s largest platinum producer tried, and failed, to break the nation’s longest-ever strike this week, with an attempt to lure miners back after 16 weeks.  The head of the union leading the strike urged workers to stay firm as tensions rose in the mining town of Marikana.

The thousands of miners who showed up Wednesday at the main stadium near Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana, South Africa, were not there to return to work, as their employer had hoped.

Instead, they were there to show their resolve. The strike in South Africa’s platinum sector has gone on for a record-breaking 16 weeks, making this the longest, and costliest, strike in the nation’s history. Led by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, the walkout has halted about 40 percent of the world’s production of the precious metal.

The union shows no signs of giving up, with its leader urging those thousands of members to “stay strong” and maintain the union’s firm demand of a basic wage of just more than $1,200 per month.

That is the same amount the AMCU asked for in 2012 when it was a minority union and launched an illegal strike against Lonmin, in the process gaining members from the then-larger National Union of Mineworkers. That nearly two-month strike reached fever pitch on August 16 of that year, when South African police shot dead 34 striking miners.

This time, police spokesman Thulani Ngubane said the scene in Marikana was peaceful, but was visibly annoyed when asked what police were doing to prevent a repeat of the 2012 violence.

“We do not have a crystal ball, we do not know what tomorrow holds," he said. "But we are doing our work to the best of our ability, and what we are doing is we have flooded the area with police.”

Ngubane said there were no reported incidents of violence, but the head of the rival National Union of Mineworkers, Frans Baleni, said his members had been intimidated.

“We are concerned about the current instability, especially violence," he said. "We condemn the current violence, whereby some workers’ rights are being violated if they [are] not intending to participate in the strike.”

This time around, it appears to be a game of attrition, with the workers caught in the middle. The economy of the town of Marikana, which surrounds Lonmin’s mine, has withered noticeably, as stores have closed and many of the 70,000 striking workers have returned to their rural homes.

AMCU officials did not respond to repeated calls Thursday seeking comment about their strategy.

The three main platinum producers affected by the strike, Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin, have bypassed the union and approached the workers directly with offers of pay raises of up to 10 percent.

None of the three platinum producers or their media representative responded to several calls seeking comment.  But the three said this week in a joint statement that they want the strike to end, and their offer directly to workers was “fair, affordable and sustainable.”

The ongoing strikes have also served to underscore the deep inequality that continues to plague this mineral-rich nation. The strike has also prompted President Jacob Zuma to accuse the union of being “irresponsible” and to call for miners to return to work.