About a third of the workforce returned August 20 to South Africa’s Marikana platinum mine, resuming operations at the site where police shot dead 34 striking miners in clashes that evoked memories of apartheid-era violence.
According to Reuters, mine owner Lonmin threatened about 3,000 striking workers with dismissal if they did not show up at Marikana, 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, where miners armed with spears, machetes and handguns died August 16 in a hail of police fire. Ten people were also killed prior to the police shooting, including a shop steward from the country’s biggest union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who was hacked to death, as a dispute between mining unions turned deadly.
The violence was sparked by a spreading battle for membership between the NUM and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which has accused its rival of caring more about politics and personal enrichment than workers. Lonmin said in a statement that operations had resumed and it had extended its deadline for the strikers at the mine, which employs 28,000, to return to work.
NUM said its feud with the militant AMCU union, seen as behind the Lonmin strike, could spread, threatening a setback for labor relations in South Africa. This could in turn feed into lower levels of investment, possibly lower growth, and a deteriorating fiscal balance for Africa’s largest economy. Hundreds of police have camped out at the mine, patrolling in small convoys of vehicles and conducting aerial surveillance by helicopter. Flags flew at half-mast to remember the dead, who included miners and police.
London-based Lonmin, which accounts for 12% of global platinum output, was forced to freeze mining as a result of the violence, but essential services such as ventilation were maintained so the mines could quickly restart production. The stoppage has driven platinum prices to six-week highs over $1,460/oz, but much of the industry remains unprofitable at a time when it is grappling with a wave of labor unrest. Lonmin had already slashed spending plans before the latest flare-up of violence and may miss its annual production target of 750,000 oz.
On August 23, a day of reflection for the whole of South Africa, the memorial event held at Lonmin’s Marikana operations was to remember all of those killed in the series of violent events since August 10. Families of the victims, employees and union officials joined management and religious leaders in calling for unity, and working together to ensure such terrible events never happen again.
“It is with huge sadness that I join with you to mourn the loss of so many of our colleagues. It is unquestionably the saddest loss in the history of this company,” said Roger Phillimore, chairman, Lonmin. “As a company we will do all we can to ease the suffering of those in pain and loss. But there is a tomorrow and you are good people. Please don’t lose faith in yourselves, the community and the company. Lonmin believes in fairness to its people. We believe the strength of our people is the strength of our company. There is no consolation to be drawn from events of last week, but there are lessons to be learnt and this must never, never happen again. We reach out to you all as you reach out to each other.”
“The whole world is looking at us; we have a people, a community, a company, a country in morning. We are sad about the people who passed away but also the events. To the management of Lonmin, you are going through a hard time. Solidarity has strong views on the matter but you must know that we are here to support you,” said Gideon Du Plessis, speaking on behalf of the Solidarity Union. “The events that happened from August 10 will be written into text books, but what is not written yet is how we will handle this from today. So we must decide today what we want our children to read.”
Lonmin management and representatives from the striking workers met Monday, August 27, 2012, to continue with discussions. The meeting was once again facilitated by the South African Council of Churches (SACC). The meetings were constructive and, at this stage, the striking workers wish to discuss this further and want more clarification in order to be convinced that the proposed way forward will provide the terms of reference necessary to address their specific concerns and therefore ensure a return to normality. Management has agreed to assist them with facilitating meetings with other parties—meetings which they believe will be useful in reaching consensus.
“We welcome the Department of Labor’s efforts in facilitating the peace accord and we congratulate the Department and all participants in this regard. It is clear that everyone involved wants to move forward. We are dealing with tragic and challenging issues, and will be for a long time to come, but for the sake of the company, its many thousands of employees, and the industry which supports them we need to find a sustainable peace accord which allows people to return to a working business,” said Simon Scott, acting CEO.
The company has always said, and maintains, that it will discuss the strikers’ demands in the normal way, through their unions within the agreements which the company and all unions involved have signed up to, but that requires the unprotected action to end. It has never refused to consider their demands. Lonmin, alongside the Unions, will continue to communicate to its wider workforce.