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Africa

South African mine shuts down after clashes

The management of a platinum mine in South Africa says operations will be halted for a week following deadly clashes that left nine people dead. Union rivalry is seen as the cause of the violence.

South African authorities swiftly stepped up the police presence in the mining town of Rustenburg, north of Johannesburg, where nine people including two policemen were brutally hacked and shot to death over the past few days. The deadly violence is reported to be linked to a turf war between two unions that are fighting to increase their membership figures. On Tuesday the management of the mine announced that work would cease for a week as it could not operate under such conditions. 

A general view of the Marikana platinum mine (photo: dpa)

The Marikana mine has been shut down for at least a week

 The Marikana mine is run by British company Lonmin, the world's third largest platinum producer. With a workforce of 28,000, it is one of South Africa's largest employers.

The killing of five mineworkers, two policemen and two security guards is a tragic escalation of the struggle for supremacy between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and rival union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Mutual recriminations

The spokesperson for the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, Dr. Elize Strijdom, strongly condemned the violence. "It sounds to us like pure criminality with total disregard of the law and for the law. This is harming everybody and I want to tell everybody out there that Lonmin and the Chamber would not in any way sit back, do nothing and condone such violence. Lonmin has done everything in their power to curb the violence and have been in full co-operation with the police," she said.

The National Union of Mineworkers has retaliated by laying the blame firmly on the shoulders of the Chamber of Mines. The NUM claims that the rival AMCU union
was created by the Chamber, Lonmin and other mining companies to undermine the NUM. It says five of the people killed were NUM members.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union has rejected all claims that it was behind the violence, saying an unofficial work stoppage that began last Friday was staged to protest against low wages. However, AMCU was reportedly trying to recruit members by offering them assurances of large pay increases.  Members of the rival unions attacked each other and the police were called in. 

Striking members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions at a demo in March, (Photo: Reuters)

South African trade unionists went on strike earlier this year

Dr Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo is a crime and justice researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.  He told DW there are signs that the NUM could be losing its influence. "There seems to be a sense that it's not addressing the concerns of mineworkers," he said.

Demand for platinum falling

Independent business analyst Terry Bell says the violence at the Lonmin-run mine will seriously affect South Africa's platinum mining industry, especially since the demand for platinum has fallen on world markets. He says mining is a declining industry in terms of jobs in the long term. The fewer mineworkers there are, the smaller the number of union subscriptions, hence the rivalry between the unions.

"If another union comes in there's going to be deep resentment," he said.
 

The violence at the Marikana mine follows similar disturbances at the nearby Impala platinum mine earlier this year when four people were killed in clashes between the rival unions. The mine was shut down for six weeks and more than 17,000 workers were sacked.

The latest violence has affected the Lonmin company on the stock markets. On Tuesday shares fell by five percent and four percent on the London and Johannesburg stock exchanges respectively.

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