JOHANNESBURG — Three months into the longest strike in South African history, the words "tragedy" and "disaster" are being used by both sides, as starving miners face off against their employer, platinum giant Lonmin, in a quest for higher wages. An aid group is holding a food drive for miners in the beleaguered town of Marikana, while Lonmin's chief warned that the company itself is "bleeding."
The windswept town of Marikana is, at the best of times, a grim place. The company town in the middle of South Africa’s platinum belt has endless rows of small, cookie-cutter houses and lean-to metal shacks for the tens of thousands of miners who work at Lonmin’s platinum mine.
Like clockwork, legions of weary miners trudge out from underground twice a day, to be immediately replenished by the next shift.
But now, more than 16 weeks into the longest strike South Africa has ever seen, Marikana is more grim than ever before.
Business on the town’s main drag has slowed to a trickle. Countless workers have been forced to return to their rural homes as they wait for their union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, to broker a deal with Lonmin.
Both sides are dug in deep -- AMCU says it will accept no less than a monthly wage of about $1,200. Lonmin representatives say they can’t afford that and that the prolonged strike has left the company “bleeding.”
The industrial action -- which also affects platinum producers Implats and Amplats -- has halted about 40 percent of the world’s production of the precious metal. This week, CEO Ben Magara warned that the drop in income might even lead to Lonmin’s death.
Lonmin bypassed the union to try to lure back employees with wage offers last week, but the attempt failed. Spokeswoman Sue Vey said the company desperately wanted the strike to end.
“The company’s suffering, employees are suffering, local businesses are suffering. It’s not benefiting anybody. We are at an impasse and we have to break that. We have to come back to the table with AMCU and find resolution,” she said.
And now, as a result of this impasse, this once bustling town is seeing something it never expected: mass hunger.
In recent days, South African charity Gift of the Givers handed out meal packs, blankets and essential items for more than 1,000 families in Marikana, plus hot meals for 5,000 people. The Islamic charity’s founder, Imtiaz Sooliman, said the community reached out for help.
“There’s two things we saw: we saw dignity, and we saw desperation. The faces, the eyes, told the whole story. … They have lost a lot, basically all of their possessions. They have no food. Most of them have sold their appliances, they’ve sold their clothing, they don’t have any winter items, they don’t have baby milk, they don’t have simple things like sanitary pads or diapers. So basically, all of the necessities of life, they’ve lost because they’ve had to sell it,” said Sooliman.
He said only one business seemed to be thriving.
“The pawn shop, apparently, in the area, says they’ve been very busy, pawning off all of these things. And they said, look, it’s good business for them, but they’re heart-broken seeing so many families lose so many of their life’s possessions because of the strike,” said Sooliman.
Observers are also concerned that this prolonged suffering could lead to violence. AMCU’s rival union says many of their members have been intimidated for going to work.
AMCU was involved in South Africa’s most violent industrial action in recent history, with a two-month illegal strike they launched in 2012. That strike reached fever pitch on August 16 of that year, when South African police shot dead 34 of the strikers.
Many South Africans described the scene -- of police shooting wildly into a crowd of black protesters -- as evocative of police brutality during the apartheid era.
Vey urged the union to find a solution. “The win-win situation would be reaching a resolution with AMCU, our majority union. And in that way, it would be a sustainable return to work, and we predict that it would be less violent, and less intimidation and so forth,” she said.
When that may come, no one can guess. The strike continues.