Deadly South Africa miners' strike ends

Sept. 19, 2012 at 4:12 PM
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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- A wage deal involving striking miners in South Africa is expected to end a shutdown of the country's gold and platinum fields, a work action in which 45 people were killed in the worst violence since the apartheid era ended in 1994.

The 5-week strike at the Marikana mine 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg owned by the London company Lonmin, the world's third largest platinum producer, and employing 28,000, shut down five other platinum mines, one gold mine and one producing chrome.

"The crisis has tarnished South Africa's image as an investment destination and added to pressure on a mining sector already struggling with rising production costs and a fragile global economic environment," the Financial Times observed.

The mass walkout was a challenge to the African National Congress government of President Jacob Zuma and its alliance with a labor federation that rivals the mineworkers' union.

The political fallout, intensified by the killing of 32 strikers by police, has been immense. Some commentators believe the bloodletting added to Zuma's growing unpopularity.

South Africa supplies 80 percent of the world's platinum, one-quarter of its chrome and is among the top 10 gold producers.

The strike gripped a vital sector of the country's economy, the richest in Africa.

But it also brought into sharp focus the growing disparity between the majority poor and the largely corrupt elite under the rule which brought down apartheid and vowed to share the country's wealth equally.

Zuma, 70, has been widely criticized for his ostentatious style and the ANC's failure to usher in social equality. He faces a crucial ANC congress in December that will determine whether he secures a second term as president.

Zuma, who has been ANC president since he was elected by Parliament following the party's 2009 general election victory, took office May 9 of that year.

He has faced several legal challenges. He was charged with rape in 2005 but was acquitted. Zuma fought a lengthy legal battle over allegations of racketeering and corruption after his financial adviser was convicted of graft and fraud. The National Prosecuting Authority dropped the charges in April 2009 -- shortly before Zuma's election as national president -- citing political interference.

He estimated the mines shutdown cost the country $500 million. The mining sector accounts for one-fifth of South Africa's gross domestic product.

The president took a tough line with the 28,000 striking Lonmin miners when the stoppage began Aug. 10.

The strike action was masterminded by Julius Malema, a former youth leader expelled by the ANC on disciplinary ground earlier this year who is one of Zuma's most vociferous critics.

His campaign against the ANC elite and the coterie of black billionaires, mostly ANC members, who have made their fortune out of the mining sector who have joined the small white elite that controls an economy based on mineral resources, has helped put Zuma's leadership under the microscope.

Six days into the Marikana walkout, police opened fire on protesting strikers at the mine, killing 34 and wounding 78. Ten other people, including two policemen, were killed in other violence.

The slaughter evoked bitter memories of apartheid-era massacres of blacks by white police and troops. Among them was Sharpsville March 21, 1960, when police killed 69 black protesters in the Transvaal township.

On June 16, 1976, police in the Johannesburg suburb of Soweto fired into black high-school students protesting the imposition of Afrikaans, the white Boer language, in their schools.

The apartheid regime listed the death toll at 26 but the unofficial toll was as high as 200.

After the Marikana slaughter, the wildcat strikes unrest spread. Anglo American Platinum, the world's top platinum producer, suspended operations at five of its mines in Rustenburg, citing intimidation.

The Beatrix mine operated by Gold Fields, the world's fourth largest gold producer, was hit along with Xastra's chrome operation.

On Tuesday, Lonmin reached an agreement with the Marikana strikers.

It will pay a gross monthly wage of $1,385 to 3,000 rock drill operators who launched the strike demanding a take-home wage of $1,560, with an average increase in salaries of 11-22 percent, plus a one-shot bonus of $244.

The wider, more explosive issue of massive unemployment, mainly among blacks, poverty and vast inequality remain a ticking time bomb on a continent bedeviled by such social ills.

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