Mine war: SA bleeds

16 August 2012 - 02:48 By AMUKELANI CHAUKE and TJ STRYDOM
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The bitter fighting between rival unions at Lonmin's Marikana mine, in which 10 people have died this week, has had a dire effect on the reputation of South Africa and its mining sector.

Gideon du Plessis, general secretary of trade union Solidarity, said yesterday the country would suffer huge losses.

"South Africa's reputation as a stable investment destination is negatively affected by the violence, not only in the platinum industry but in general," said Du Plessis.

The Chamber of Mines also voiced its concern about the impact of the violence at the mine in North West.

"The JSE tells the story," said Vusi Mabena, senior executive: transformation and stakeholder relations at the chamber.

Lonmin's share price fell by 5.7% in the last week. "It is a signal in its own right that investors are unhappy," said Mabena.

"We are afraid that this problem is becoming more of a social - or a bigger problem - than just two unions that disagree. We cannot bluff ourselves and say it is not spilling over into the wider community."

The hostility within the mining sector and outbreak of violence has been blamed on the animosity between the the National Union of Mineworkers and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

At stake is a significant R100-million in membership fees. AMCU, which was registered as a union in 2001, has slowly been recruiting in the platinum industry.

Platinum giant Lonmin's CEO, Ian Farmer, announced earlier this year that his company had agreed to confer limited organisation rights to AMCU in recognition of its increasing membership.

As with the violent strike at Impala mines in Rustenburg, this week's industrial action at Marikana has been blamed on the rivalry between the two unions - one older than 30 years and the jewel in Cosatu's crown, and the other commonly described as "an upstart".

By yesterday, the death toll had risen to 10 at Marikana, It included two policemen brought in to stabilise the riot-stricken mine.

As about 3000 striking miners occupied a hill near the Wonderkop Stadium, between Rustenburg and Brits, this week, the area resembled a war zone, with police helicopters and armoured cars used to patrol the area.

Yesterday, government officials and union bosses were brought in police Nyalas to negotiate with workers.

Both NUM president Senzeni Zokwana and his AMCU counterpart, Joseph Mathunjwa, addressed the workers.

Zokwana was sent away in his armoured car, while Mathunjwa got a warmer reception.

Mathunjwa, who was expelled from NUM in 1999, pleaded with the workers to stop the illegal strike.

Speaking through a megaphone, he told them Lonmin management had given the unions an undertaking that it would not dismiss strikers provided they reported for duty.

On Tuesday, Lonmin's executive vice-president for human capital, Barnard Mokoena, said it obtained a court order that gave the strikers until yesterday to report for duty, failing which they would be sacked.

Mathunjwa said: "We are pleading with you to consider the request to return to work, and they are willing to listen to your demands."

The thousands of heavily armed workers have distanced themselves from their unions, and demand that the mine management triple their salaries, from R4000 to R12500 each a month.

Lonmin is the world's third-biggest platinum producer and is listed on both the London and Johannesburg stock exchanges.

The company's share price lost ground in London for a third consecutive day yesterday, down nearly 2%, and taking its drop in the past five days to 8.4%. This made it the worst performer on London's mining index.

After keeping a safe distance for three days, police yesterday approached about 2500 workers gathered on a hill that overlooks the mine's western operations to try to negotiate with them.

Heavily armed policemen in about 10 Inyalas, two helicopters and scores of police vehicles surrounded the hill, but that did not appear to deter or intimidate the crowd.

Police stationed about 50m from the crowd, which wielded iron rods, axes and sticks, occasionally called over a group to one of the Inyalas, but it remains unclear what was discussed.

National police spokesman Dennis Adriao refused to comment on the negotiations, but, according to a group of workers who spoke to the media late yesterday, the talks were deadlocked.

Three men representing the workers said they refused to negotiate with "faceless people" after the people in the Inyala refused to identify themselves and insisted on talking to them via a megaphone.

Adriao refused to comment.

While no violence broke out during the standoff, Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu said she was "gravely concerned" about the deaths of 10 people since the strike started.

It is understood that NUM and AMCU finally agreed to meet around one table with Lonmin management.

After talking to the crowd last night, both Zokwana and Mathunjwa left under heavy police guard, without speaking to the media.

NUM is expected to brief journalists at a press conference in Johannesburg this morning.

When the strike started, a turf war between the two unions was blamed, with AMCU accusing NUM of using violence to intimidate workers who had defected from the older union.

Last night, NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka denied its members had left to join AMCU due to unhappiness with the union.

Most of the workers at the Marikana hill have said they decided to negotiate for a better salary directly with management because NUM had done an injustice to their cause.

"Unions signed a two-year salary agreement with Lonmin last year, and we cannot negotiate now because of that," said Seshoka.

"Our members are part of the gathering, and they are not there because they are unhappy. They called us to say they are scared of being victimised and, for that reason, they are staying with the group because they are in the company of violent individuals," he said.

Solidarity's Du Plessis said the continuing violence - and the unions' inability to come to an agreement - was "very negative for the image of trade unions".

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