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South African Miners Begin Returning to Work

DOHA, Sep 20 2012 (IPS) - Miners at the Marikana platinum mine in South Africa have begun returning to work after agreeing a pay deal.*

Striking workers went back to work on Thursday at the Lonmin plant, the scene of violent protests in which dozens of miners were shot by police in August.

The return to work came as the final day of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) conference took place in Midland, Johannesburg.

Cosatu is expected to decide whether it will open its own inquiry into the Marikana shooting and the state of the country’s mining industry.

Many striking miners have left the unions that represented them.

Mike Hannah, reporting from Johannesburg, said: “The government has put a policy in place with regard to the mining companies, the government’s position is that some mining companies like Lonmin who own the Marikana mine have not met their full agreement as they have agreed with the government as a whole.

“Now you are going to see pressure from the company ramping up to carry through things like renovating the hospitals where workers stay and better living conditions in and around the mines.”

Tear gas

On Wednesday, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters near a mine run by the world’s biggest platinum producer Anglo American Platinum, as unrest spread after strikers at rival Lonmin won big pay rises.

Within hours of Lonmin agreeing pay rises of up to 22 per cent, workers at nearby mines called for similar pay increases on Wednesday, spelling more trouble after six weeks of industrial action that claimed more than 40 lives and rocked South Africa’s economy.

Police clashed with a crowd of men carrying traditional weapons such as spears and machetes in a township at a nearby Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) mine outside the city of Rustenburg.

Officers fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse an “illegal gathering,” police spokesman Dennis Adriao said. He had no information on any injuries.

Anglo American later issued an ultimatum to their striking workers to end the strike.

“Anglo American Platinum has communicated to its employees the requirement to return to work by the night shift on Thursday 20 September, failing which legal avenues will be pursued,” the firm said in a statement.

The ultimatum by the world’s top platinum producer came after police arrested 22 people in protests after it had urged workers to return to five mines that were shut down over safety fears last week.

The number of dead from the unrest rose to 46 when a woman was struck by a rubber bullet on Wednesday as police dispersed mine protesters, Central Methodist Church Bishop Paul Verryn, who has been counselling striking miners, told the Reuters news agency.

“We want management to meet us as well now,” an organiser for the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) at Impala Platinum, the second biggest platinum producer, told Reuters.

“We want 9,000 rand (1,100 dollars) a month as a basic wage instead of the roughly 5,000 rand we are getting,” said the organiser, who declined to be named fearing recriminations from the firm.

Lonmin deal

A labour activist said workers who had stayed off the job at Amplats, which accounts for 40 per cent of global supplies of the metal used for catalytic converters in cars and jewellery, were inspired by Lonmin and would press on with their demands.

“The mood here is upbeat, very celebratory,” said Mametlwe Sebei, a community representative near Rustenburg. “Victory is in sight. The workers are celebrating Lonmin as a victory.”

President Jacob Zuma expressed relief at the pay deal after criticism from the opposition and media of the government’s handling of the crisis – not least in the aftermath of the police killing of 34 Marikana miners on Aug. 16.

Further fuelling union rivalry, jubilant workers at Lonmin’s Marikana mine, 100km northwest of Johannesburg, painted the wage deal as a victory for AMCU over the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), an ally of the ruling African National Congress.

Lonmin shares rose more than nine per cent in early trade on news of the pay deal, but gave up most of those gains as the reality of the extra costs to a company struggling with a shaky balance sheet and unprofitable mine shafts sunk in.

Platinum prices rose a little on Wednesday after falling 2.6 per cent a day earlier on news of the Lonmin deal.

*Published under an agreement with Al Jazeera.

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