South Africa: Lonmin miners ready to resume work

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Photo caption: Miners sing and dance whilst holding South African bank notes in Lonmin Platinum Mine near Rustenburg, South Africa, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012. Striking miners have accepted a company offer of a 22% overall pay increase to end more than five weeks of crippling and bloody industrial action. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

MARIKANA, South Africa (AP) — Lonmin miners celebrated a wage deal Wednesday that ended a deadly and prolonged strike but labor unrest continued with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas at strikers at a different platinum mine.

Some warned that the deal struck by Lonmin to give its 28,000 workers up to 22 percent pay raises would incite other miners to similar action. Lonmin also employs 10,000 contract workers not covered by the agreement.

“It sets a dangerous precedent and illegal actions to enforce wage increases could occur at other mines in future,” said Gideon du Plessis, head of the mainly white Solidarity mining union.

The Lonmin agreement reached Tuesday night does not resolve the union rivalry that was at the heart of the violence, nor the class struggle that it exposed between a small, politically connected black elite and the majority of impoverished South Africans who feel the government has failed to keep its promise of a better life for all.

And the political and economic fallout likely will hurt the re-election campaign of South African President Jacob Zuma, whom miners blame for the police shootings of 112 striking miners, which killed 34 on Aug. 16. The total number of those who died during the strike rose to 46 Wednesday when a woman died in hospital after being shot on Saturday when police raided the Wonderkop settlement, according to mediator Bishop Joe Seoka.

At the Lonmin mine at Marikana, the world’s third largest platinum mine, thousands gathered and sang the national anthem in piercing heat, holding up umbrellas to block the sun. Workers cheered and laughed as they walked into the mine stadium. Many hurt by the no-work, no-pay stoppage said they would be happy to return to work Thursday.

Lonmin agreed to a gross pay of 11,078 rand ($1,385) for rock drill operators who had been demanding a monthly take-home wage of 12,500 rand ($1,560). They also agreed to give all miners a 2,000 rand ($250) bonus for returning to work. A statement from the company said that miners will receive between 11 and 22 percent wage increases.

“If everyone is happy with the money, I am also happy with them because I am here to work for my children,” said miner Stan Chayisa.

“I am so happy,” said Mvenyeza Luhlaziyao, 48, a painter at the mines. “I try to forget the past and continue to move forward … We must continue to build the company and management must listen to us in the future. People didn’t care about us, that’s why we decided to go on strike.”

Zolisa Bodlani, one of the strike leaders, said the agreement is noteworthy. “If no people were killed, I’d say this was a great achievement,” he said. “We’ve never in the history of South Africa had such an increase of pay as 22 percent.”

Two wives of winch operators expressed their pleasure that the strike had ended. “The weeks without pay were terrible,” said Plaxedes Matemba, a 39-year-old mother of two.

“It will make life better for us,” she said of the pay raise. “We expect better changes again … there will be no more provoking, no more noise, no more beatings,” she said.

Still, many expressed anger toward the government, questioning Zuma’s leadership as he prepares for a crucial governing party congress in December that will decide whether he gets another term as leader of Africa’s richest economy.

They “brought the police to shoot us, so I don’t believe the current president of South Africa should be the president again. There must be change,” said miner Michael Maleswa.

Another, Johannes Hlkela, said “I don’t believe he (Zuma) should be president again because of the way he has killed people like animals.”

Strikers had spoken against the huge economic inequality and the government’s failure to address massive unemployment and poverty. Most Lonmin miners live in tin shacks without water or electricity.

The strike has highlighted the country’s widening gap between the majority poor and a small black elite enriched, often corruptly, through shares in mines.

Government plans in the aftermath of the brutal apartheid regime to share the wealth of a country that provides 75 percent of the world’s platinum, a fourth of its chrome and is in the top 10 of gold producers have made a small handful of blacks billionaires, joining a small white elite that continues to control an economy dominated by mineral resources and agriculture.

The exuberant crowd at Lonmin was addressed by Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union that has poached thousands of members from the dominant, government-allied National Union of Mineworkers this year.

“From the 16th of August, you have known who are your proper leaders. Now you know who is the leader of the boardroom and who is the leader of the people,” he said. “The right leader is the one who comes forth to its people without security or bodyguards to talk to its members. The leader who is afraid to come forth to workers or miners, he is afraid because he knows what he has done.”

Many miners said they were angry at Zuma for not visiting the site of the police shootings when he belatedly came to address them.

The National Union of Mineworkers said the Lonmin deal will open the way for new demands from other miners.”

Spokesman Lesiba Seshoka said the NUM will try to set up a forum with other mining companies.

“Of course this is going to set a precedent,” he said. “We want the companies to come together into bargaining so that we can deal with this thing. The challenge is going to be whether the other companies will be able to do 22 percent.”

At Anglo American Platinum’s Amplats mine near Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg, some 400 to 500 strikers tried to march Wednesday. The workers at Amplats, the world’s biggest platinum mine, have said that they are better paid than Lonmin strikers and want even more than the Lonmin strikers’ demands for a monthly take-home salary of 12,500 rand ($1,560).

Police ordered the Amplats strikers to lay down their homemade weapons – machetes, spears and clubs. “Police asked them to disperse and when they wouldn’t, police used tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd,” said police spokesman Dennis Adriao. “We’ve said from the start that we would not tolerate illegal gatherings.”

He said 19 people were arrested.

Zuma gave police the go-ahead for a crackdown on the strikers, further angering miners.

Anglo American Platinum spokeswoman Mpumi Sithole said all five mines in Rustenburg had reopened Tuesday. But she refused to say how many miners have returned to work. Anglo released a statement late Wednesday that said legal avenues may be pursued for workers who do not return by Thursday’s night shift.

South Africa Press Association reported that the head of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Zwelinzima Vavi, left the group’s conference Wednesday to deal with a strike at Gold Fields’ Driefontein mine in Carletonville. It said that 15,000 workers have been on an illegal strike for 10 days.

Vavi said the mineworkers were also demanding a salary of 12,500 rand, according to SAPA. He said of Lonmin: “If those workers forced the hand of the company in that fashion through an unprotected strike, what stops Driefontein in doing the same,” according to SAPA, which also said that leaders from the National Union of Mineworkers went with Vavi to the mine.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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