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Africa

Workers boycott South African mine, deadline extended

Two thirds of miners stayed away from work at a South African platinum mine despite threats from their employers. A lethal police crackdown at the mine shock the nation and revived memories of apartheid.

Just over a third of miners turned up for work at the Marikana platinum mine on Monday after the owners Lonmim had threatened to sack strikers.

Lonmin's executive vice president for mining, Mark Munroe, reiterated the company's warning that workers must report back to work or be fired, but effectively extended the deadline for their return by 24 hours. He also said there was no ore production on Monday.

Munroe was speaking alongside officials from the national Union of Mineworkers (NUM) but in the absence of a representative from the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), seen as the driving force behind the strikes.

The 3,000 strikers, led by rock drill operators, had halted production at the mine by staging a wildcat strike, which began on August 10. They said they were calling for a 200 percent pay rise.

AMCU not in negotiations

Lonmin's chief financial officer Simon Scott said on Monday the company had yet to receive any demands from the strikers and the AMCU had not been part of the company's negotiations with workers.

The strike turned into a turf war between rival unions and ten people, including two police officers were killed. The crisis culminated in yet more bloodshed on Thursday when 34 people were shot dead in a police crackdown at the mine. Police say they acted in self-defense.

It was the bloodiest day of protest in South Africa since the fall of apartheid in 1994.

First day of national mourning

President Jacob Zuma has announced a committee of inquiry to investigate what went wrong.

South African President Jacob Zuma. Picture: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP

Critics of South African president Jacob Zuma say the bloodshed could have been prevented

It was unclear whether strikers were among those returning to work on Monday.

As well as issuing threats of dismissal, Lonmim urged 25,000 other employees and 10,000 contractors to show up for work, assuring them they would be safe.

But as union leaders held meetings, about 1,000 workers gathered near the mine in protest at what they described as Lonmim's "insensitivity" in expecting them to return to work while they were still mourning the miners who lost their lives last week.

Monday was the first day of a week of national mourning declared by President Zuma. A memorial service is planned for Thursday.

"Government could have prevented bloodshed"

John Capel is the executive director of the Bench Mark Foundation, a faith-based organization which specializes in social questions relating to the mining industry. He says he is not surprised by recent developments as changes in the industry since the end of apartheid have been minimal.

"The workers had hoped that they would get proper housing for themselves and their families, that they would get enough to eat and proper medical care. The reality is that they are forced to live in corrugated iron huts and slums without water or electricity," he says.

Capel also says that 18 years after the end of apartheid, politics and business in South Africa coexist in unhealthy proximity.

"These firms believe they can do what they like because they have the appropriate political connections. ANC heavyweight Cyril Ramaphosa is a former trade union leader turned businessman who sits on Lonmin's board. He is a multimillionaire in the new South Africa."

Capel believes such appointments curtail the government's ability to keep law and order and to protect working people. He is also convinced that the government could have prevented the bloodbath.

Striking miners chant slogans outside a South African mine in Rustenburg, Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

The gap between the rich and the poor is wider in South Africa than anywhere else in the world

"The government should have taken part in negotiations and found the right mediators. In my opinion they wanted to send a harsh signal to the unions and workers saying we will not put with your strikes any longer, you are damaging South Africa's image and our investors."

Aggressive language

Lucy Holbourn from the South African Institute for Race Relations believes politicians are to blame for South African's propensity for violence. President Zuma insists on singing the "struggle song" "Bring me my machine gun," she says.

"This is not meant literally, but such language does create a climate which signifies that violence is normal and acceptable."

Holbourn also notes that the gap between rich and poor is wider in South Africa than anywhere else in the world. Half of the population lives below the poverty line. A quarter of the labor force is unemployed. The police are poorly trained, state hospitals are in an advanced state of disrepair and wherever you look in the state sector there are signs of corruption and work left undone. "Eighteen years after the end of apartheid the population is no longer prepared to forgive such things," Holbourn says.

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