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Miners’ discontent a far-reaching problem

Spread of strikes further stresses a weak economy

- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 22, 2012

MARIKANA, South Africa — South African President Jacob Zuma traveled Wednesday to a mine where police killed 34 strikers and wounded another 78, causing outrage and eroding support for the party that has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid.

Demands for higher wages spread to at least two other mines, raising fears that the instability could inflame protests at more of the South African mines that provide 75 percent of the world's platinum.

South Africa's miningweb.com website calls it "a possibly ominous development" that could have a "devastating effect on the South African economy as a whole with metals and minerals sales providing such a large part of the country's export income."

Platinum mines, already hit by low world prices and flagging demand, especially from vehicle makers who use the metal to control carbon emissions, may not be in a financial position to seriously consider the demands, some industry analysts say.

The shutdown at the Marikana mine, where the Aug. 16 shootings occurred, has cost hundreds of millions of dollars in share value for London-registered Lonmin PLC.

The company said Tuesday that it may have to renegotiate with bankers debt payments that are due Sept. 30. Lonmin also said it will be unable to meet its annual target production of 750,000 ounces.

Any slowdown in South Africa's platinum production will have little short-term effect internationally because the platinum industry has allowed the world market to build up a surplus estimated to last for 18 months to two years, according to mining industry specialist Jan de Lange of Sake24.com, an Afrikaans-language business news website.

Rich and poor

Thandi Modise, premier of North West Province where the platinum mines are located, warned Tuesday that the protests may spread if authorities don't deal with the massive and growing inequality gap that has many South Africans feeling they have not benefited in the 18 years since black-majority rule replaced a racist white minority government.

South Africa has developed into the richest nation in Africa, yet it still has more than 25 percent unemployment that is nearer to 50 percent among young people.

Protests against shortages of housing, electricity and running water and poor education and health services are an almost daily affair.

That poverty is contrasted by the ostentatious lifestyles of a small elite of blacks who have become multimillionaires, often through corruption related to government tenders.

Mr. Zuma came to the troubled Lonmin mine after striking miners heckled a committee of government ministers sent to help the grieving community with identification of bodies of slain miners, burial arrangements and bereavement counseling.

"If Jacob Zuma doesn't want to come here, how does he expect to gain our votes?" one man shouted at the Cabinet ministers.

"Don't you know if the miners here don't vote for you, the ANC is going down?" another piped up, referring to the ruling African National Congress party.

Defense Minister Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula responded with the first official apology for the killings by police.

"As a representative of the government, I apologize," Mr. Mapisa-Nqakula said. "I am begging, I beg and I apologize, may you find forgiveness in your hearts."

South Africa is the world's leading producer of platinum and ferrochrome, the fourth-largest producer of iron ore and is among the top 10 gold producers in the world.

'A long process'

On Tuesday, at the dusty site of last Thursday's police shootings, hundreds of mourners walked barefoot as church leaders blessed the ground, with a Methodist bishop drawing a large cross in the dirt.

"Church members have come to express solidarity in the wake of what really has been a shocking event," Bishop Gavin Taylor said. "It's almost indescribable that people could have been killed in this way."

As others sang hymns, Alakhe Nombeu sobbed. She said that her brother was one of the strikers killed by police volleys of gunfire and that she finally found the name of her missing husband among those arrested Sunday, three days after the shootings.

Two men who survived the mass shooting by police say a traditional healer told the strikers that police bullets would not harm them if they used traditional medicine, a South African newspaper reported as the mining company postponed an ultimatum for workers to return to work.

Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane announced that officials by late Tuesday had identified 33 of the 34 bodies of shot miners, including one man from Lesotho, a mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa.

Chabane spokesman Harold Maloka said it had taken days to check the mine's data base, the government data base and ensuring that families were able to identify the men.

"It becomes a long process because some family members were looking for their loved ones and they might not be among the dead at the morgue or the wounded in hospitals," Mr. Maloka said.

No striking miners will be fired in the week that South Africa officially mourns the killings, the presidency said Tuesday.

Managers of the Lonmin platinum mine had ordered strikers to report for duty by 7 a.m. Tuesday or get fired, even as some family members still were searching for missing loved ones, not knowing whether they were dead or alive among some 250 arrested protesters or in one of the hospitals.

An inter-ministerial committee led by Mr. Chabane convinced managers of Lonmin PLC not to act on the dismissal ultimatum during a week of national mourning that began Monday, according to Mr. Maloka.

Presumed invulnerability

Two survivors told the Daily Dispatch that many of the miners drank a brown muti, or traditional medicine, to strengthen themselves ahead of the confrontation with police.

"They were cut several times on their upper body, and a black substance was smeared on the wounds," Nothi Zimanga said, according to the newspaper in East London, in the country's Eastern Cape where many miners come from. "They were then told when they confront the police they must not look back and must just charge forward. If you look back, then the muti will not work."

Miner Bulelani Malawana said he was offered the muti for $125 but turned it down.

Some 3,000 rock drill operators started the strike Aug. 10 demanding higher wages. The operators are among the least educated of mine workers, often illiterate, and they pride themselves of doing the most dangerous job in the mine.

Sue Vey, a public relations specialist representing Lonmin, said about 33 percent of workers expected for the morning shift reported for work Tuesday, up only slightly on 30 percent who reported Monday in response to an earlier ultimatum.

Another publicist for Lonmin, Gillian Findlay, said that only 19.5 percent of rock drill operators showed up Tuesday.

Lonmin said the mine had resumed operations on Monday.

Ms. Vey said workers were mainly involved in sweeping, making areas safe and having briefings. Industry experts say a workforce of at least 80 percent is needed to actually produce platinum.

The mine cannot operate without rock drill operators, who man the massive drills deep underground.

Nqobile Ntshangase contributed to this article.

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