South African police disperse 3,000 ‘violent’ miners

The incident marks the first instance of major unrest in the sector-wide strike, now in its second week

'BETTER PAY.' South African miners hold up sticks and umbrellas during a strike in Marikana on January 30, 2014. Photo by Alexander Joe/AFP

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – South African police said they used stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse about 3,000 “violent” striking miners Tuesday, February 4, in the country’s restive platinum belt.

Strikers “carrying dangerous weapons, such as knobkerries and sticks, blocked the road and were threatening to remove non-striking workers at the shaft,” police said in a statement.

The incident occurred at Anglo American Platinum’s Khuseleka 1 facility in the country’s north. It marks the first instance of major unrest in the sector-wide strike, now in its second week.

“Police were forced to use stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd,” the force said, adding that two protesters aged 52 and 47 were arrested.

They face charges of public violence.

The incident will raise fears of a return to violent strikes that have seen dozens of workers killed at the hands of rival unions and the police.

Around 80,000 members of the radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) downed tools on January 23 calling for a minimum monthly wage of 12,500-rand ($1,100) – almost double their current pay.

Last Thursday, the union rejected a three-year deal from Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin that offered a roughly 7% annual increase.

South Africa produces 80% of the world’s platinum and around 134,000 people are employed in the sector.

Platinum group metals are vital in products such as catalytic converters, computer hard disks and dental fillings.

Mining companies: ‘Drastic wage increase impossible’

Government-brokered talks to end the strike -–which firms say is costing them as much as $36 million a day – restarted on Tuesday.

But AMCU has threatened the strike could go on for a month if no agreement is reached.

Companies, which have seen their revenues plummet in recent years, are looking for a long-term agreement in the hope of preventing what have become regular stoppages.

But they insist drastic wage increases are impossible and claim that the current pay package is more than a basic entry-level wage.

“The wage increases demanded by AMCU are unaffordable by industry, will push more of industry into loss-making territory,” said South African Chamber of Mines economist Roger Baxter.

The strikes are costing Africa’s largest economy $36 million a day in lost production, he told a continental mining conference in Cape Town.

Mining labor costs have more than doubled in South Africa in the past two decades, Baxter added.

Current wage demands date back to violent mass wildcat strikes in 2012, which resulted in the police shooting dead 34 strikers on one day at Lonmin’s Marikana mine.

But industrial action has become “more peaceful” since then, Baxter said, a statement echoed by Mining Minister Susan Shabangu.

“We have restored the rule of law, peace and stability in this industry,” Shabangu told the conference.

“These developments debunk the myth that labor laws in South Africa lack flexibility and are only created to protect workers,” she said. – Rappler.com