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S.Africa platinum mineworkers return to work after longest strike

Thousands of miners on South Africa’s platinum belt streamed back to work on Wednesday after reaching a wage deal with leading global producers that ended a crippling five-month strike.

Workers at Anglo America Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum and Lonmin started making their way to the mines outside Rustenburg from as early as 5:00 am (0300 GMT), setting the northwestern town abuzz for the first time in months.

“I feel like a new employee all over again,” said Andries Phala.

“I’m glad the strike is over. I’m also happy that our return will make a small difference in our wages,” said Phala, who has worked at Lonmin for 14 years.

Some workers were in full underground mining gear, with hard hats and reflective overalls, but it is expected to take several weeks for production to get into full swing.

The world’s largest producers, Anglo American Platinum, said it expected to achieve “steady” production levels in the fourth quarter of this year.

Companies reported a combined loss of 24 billion rand ($2.27 billion) in earnings and said workers lost 10.6 billion rand in wages, as a result of the longest mining strike in South Africa’s history.

“Being without income was difficult for everyone, everything stood still. This bit of an increase will definitely motivate us to work harder,” said an underground employee at one of Anglo American Platinum mines.

“We also deserve our share in the wealth of this country,” he added.

The wage deal signed by the three companies on Tuesday will see the lowest paid workers whose basic salary is less than 12,500 rand ($1,180) increase by 1,000 rand ($95) a month for two years and by 950 rand in the third year.

The increases work out to just around 20 percent of their original wages.

Workers had originally demanded that basic wages be increased to 12,500 rand — which would have represented a more than doubling of income for many.

The union representing the workers, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU, acknowledged that not all workers would reach a 12,500 rand basic wage under the new three-year deal, but has described the strike as a victory.

The government and business have welcomed the end to the strike, which pushed the economy into contraction in the first quarter of the year, but many media commentators warned more problems lie ahead.

“What has been achieved through this settlement is no more than a reprieve,” Business Day said in an editorial.

It created “a breathing space that must be used to restructure the mining industry so as to avoid a repeat performance in three years — or sooner if other sectors are impressed enough with the settlement terms to follow the platinum miners’ lead.”

-Hope returning-

But a sense of victory was also felt in the impoverished Marikana area, where mineworkers’ income is the main lifeblood. The strike had caused some businesses to close.

A Somali shopkeeper in the town said he was relieved that the strike was over, saying he was “lucky to even make a sale” of a few basic items a day since the end of February.

“We had to remain hopeful, one month passed, then two, three and four. Hope was beginning to fade,” said Saaif Asmal, who runs a small supermarket.

“I was ready to close down.”

In Nkaneng, a squalid slum near Lonmin mine, mineworkers’ families were also elated at the prospect of pay day coming around again.

The settlement is a stones’ throw from the infamous Marikana hill, the scene of an August 2012 bloodbath where police opened fire on striking mineworkers, killing 34.

“I was beginning to worry that we were now going to witness more deaths, deaths caused by starvation and stress,” said Anna Makua, whose husband survived the 2012 killings.

Amplats promised to assist returning employees in the first month with food parcels, health supplements and transport.

It will also within the first week give the workers cash payment of back pay for the period they were not on strike.