South Africa police fire teargas, rubber bullets as mine unrest spreads

Turf war in platinum sector between 2 unions
By Ed Cropley
||Last Updated: 09/04/2012

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African police fired teargas and rubber bullets to disperse striking miners at a gold mine near Johannesburg on Monday, the latest outbreak in a wave of labour militancy spreading from platinum mining into other parts of the sector.

The unrest occurred less than three weeks after police shot dead 34 striking miners at Lonmin's Marikana mine, the bloodiest security incident since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.

The Marikana shooting shocked South Africa and marred the image of the continent's biggest economy, as the full extent of a breakdown in labour relations in the mines became apparent.

South Africa is home to 80 per cent of known platinum reserves and the price of the precious metal, used in jewellery and car catalytic converters, has risen more than 10 per cent since the violence erupted.

In Monday's incident, mine owner Gold One International said about 60 workers at its Modder East site went on a wildcat strike, blocking half its employees from reporting for their shifts.

"The group, however, refused to disperse. The South African Police Service had to use teargas and rubber bullets to disperse the group," it said in a statement.

Police spokeswoman Pinky Tsinyane said four people were injured in the incident, which she described as a "shoot-out" between protesting ex-miners, miners and security guards.

"Police are investigating a case of attempted murder," she said, adding that four arrests had been made. "We understand that the ex-miners were assaulting the miners who were coming to work this morning."

In a separate dispute — but one born of similar social conditions —  an illegal strike involving one-quarter of the 46,000-strong workforce at the KCD East gold mine, owned by world No. 4 bullion producer Gold Fields, entered its third working day.

Marikana miners released

The Marikana unrest stemmed ultimately from a turf war in the platinum sector between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the small but militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

The government has been trying to broker a peace accord to cool off the feud before it does lasting damage to the platinum industry and spreads across the mining sector, which accounts for eight per cent of South African economic output.

On Monday, the first of 270 miners detained at the Marikana shootings were released from police custody after prosecutors withdrew murder charges brought under an obscure apartheid-era security law for the police killing of their colleagues. The public outcry at the murder charges soured the already testy relationship between the unions, Lonmin management and the government, which has been trying to put a lid on the mess and end a wildcat strike approaching its fourth week.

However, three-way talks ended without any progress on Monday. The Department of Labor said the negotiations would resume on Wednesday.

Lonmin shares rose nearly four per cent in early trade on hopes for a resumption of mining, but lost most of those gains as hopes of a breakthrough faded. Lonmin said only 4.5 per cent of its shift workers turned up on Monday.

"An indefinite strike will ultimately threaten the jobs of more than 40,000 workers. We cannot go on indefinitely without normalizing operations and still escape the consequences of the mine not being operational," it said in a statement.

Many of the AMCU-affiliated miners accuse the NUM of caring more about its political connections to the ruling African National Congress than about the plight of workers deep underground.

The 3,000 striking Marikana workers are mostly rock drill operators demanding 12,500 rand (C$1,467) per month in basic wages, more than double what they receive now.

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