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Thousands of miners return to work; a few stay true

Thousands of miners have returned to work in South Africa following weeks of violently repressed strikes across the country. All of the 1,500 workers who failed to return to mines owned by Gold Fields have been laid off.

Gold Fields, the world's fourth largest gold producer, had threatened to dismiss about 20,000 workers taking part in the wildcat strikes if they did not report to their posts by 2 p.m. (1200 GMT) on Thursday. Still, around 1,500 workers stayed away and were sacked, company spokesman Willie Jacobsz said.

"The dismissed workers have 24 hours within which to lodge appeals against their dismissals," he said.

New unrest also broke out at a platinum mine belonging to Lonmin Plc. The company was the first to see strikes in this wildcat wave, and more than 50 workers died in and around its Marikana mine, including 34 who were shot by police. Several shop stewards were also murdered.

Another mine operator, Anglo American Platinum Ltd., announced that it would delay a dismissal process for thousands of striking workers demanding higher wages to allow another round of talks with unions.

South Africa's main syndicates have been urging their members to only engage in protected strikes, those validated by courts, though these calls have gone unheeded at several key mines. Thousands of other miners in the chrome, gold, iron ore and platinum sectors have also held wildcat strikes in the past six weeks.

Creating resentment

Following a meeting of government officials, unions and business representatives on Wednesday, President Jacob Zuma urged miners engaged in wildcat strikes to return to their posts. He added that top-earning executives should accept a pay freeze over the next 12 months. The government is coming under increasing pressure to resolve the disputes as investors worry about uncertainties in Africa's largest economy.

Large wage disparities "create resentment and limit our social cohesion," Zuma said.

South Africa's central bank has also warned that vast amounts of foreign equity have been pulled from the country, and the rand has lost considerable values on currency markets, with concern that it could drop further.

mkg/ccp  (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)