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S. Africa Mining Unrest Overshadows Major Conference

Mine workers gather at Wonderkop stadium outside the Lonmin mine in Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg, Jan. 29, 2014.
Mine workers gather at Wonderkop stadium outside the Lonmin mine in Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg, Jan. 29, 2014.
Anita Powell
— Unrest in South Africa’s mining sector is overshadowing the nation’s largest mining event, scheduled for next week in Cape Town. Investors are worried that a union leading a platinum mining strike has failed to reach a deal, and economic justice activists say the system is flawed. 

The annual Mining Indaba -- the Zulu word for “gathering” -- is undoubtedly the biggest mining sector event in the nation.  It brings together industry leaders, government officials and investors to discuss billion-dollar deals in an industry that claims the lion’s share of South Africa’s economy.
 
But this year’s Indaba is overshadowed by strife in the mining sector.
 
South Africa’s most powerful platinum mining union launched an indefinite strike on January 23.  The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, AMCU, is demanding to almost double the minimum wage for entry-level miners, to about $1,200 per month.
 
Negotiations are ongoing as some 70,000 workers in the nation’s “platinum belt” have stopped work.
 
The three largest platinum producers -- Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonmin - say the wage demand is unsustainable, and say the strike is costing them more than $17 million per day combined.
 
Mining Indaba Vice President and Managing Director Jonathan Moore says the strike is a topic of concern for investors -- and will be discussed at the gathering.
 
“The thing that we hear from investors frequently is that they are seeking a scenario where there is consistency and transparency so that they can best assess the opportunities that they have to make investments," Moore said.  "And so, anytime that there is unrest, anytime there are disruptions, I think it’s concerning to investors.  And certainly they’ll be seeking insights both from mining company executives, mining ministers that are here and active throughout the Indaba, and other industry experts on their views on what might come next.”
 
But Moore says this concern isn’t driving investors away from the event -- which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.  It will be well-attended. Organizers expect some 7,800 delegates from more than 100 countries.
 
Just a few blocks from the main mining event, the Economic Justice Forum -- a church-affiliated group -- will be holding their own gathering, the Alternative Mining Indaba.
 
The group’s executive director Malcolm Damon says that while they have no position regarding the outcome of the strike, they will take a closer look at the human cost of the industry.
 
“Workers are not satisfied with that," he said. "And workers are saying, ‘We have certain rights, we have also a right when it comes to our health and when we go underground,’ and therefore these things need to be taken into consideration, the situation of workers, the living wage of workers so that workers can feel they are contributing and not only being exploited by mining companies.”
 
Ph.D student Crispen Chinguno, who spent a year studying the community in South Africa’s platinum belt, says that labor issues are a human rights issue and need to be part of the conversation at the main indaba.
 
“We need to take cognizance of the fact that these people, they are human beings, they need a decent life, decent work," Chinguno said.  "I would expect maybe the Mining Indaba to look into how do we deal with the question around labor, how do we move away from this cheap labor regime that has persisted for the past 150 years in the mining industry in South Africa?”

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