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South Africa hosts ‘peace talks’ in mine strike standoff

South African officials Wednesday brokered closed-door talks between workers and management of Lonmin’s platinum mine to end a strike where violence has killed 44 people.

Almost three weeks into the work stoppage, about 50 negotiators from unions, non-union workers, the mine and the labour ministry met in the Rustenburg town hall, near the Marikana mine in North West Province.

Fewer than eight percent of the 28,000 employees showed up for work on Wednesday, in a further slide in attendance as the strike hit its 20th day at the plant owned by the world’s third largest platinum producer.

An immediate resumption of operations seemed unlikely, with Lonmin insisting that a “peace accord” be sealed before talks start on the wage demands that saw workers first down tools on August 10.

“Today is the day of peace accord and a first step and an instrument to move together. Everyone wants it to be a success,” company spokeswoman Sue Vey told AFP.

“At the end of the day it’s all about public order. We cannot discuss wages when people are intimidated. It’s all a matter of ‘it has to go back to normality before anything can be discussed’,” she said.

But workers — who say they earn 4,000 rand a month and want 12,500 rand (1,190 euros, $1,490) — insist they won’t go back below ground until their demands are met, and some have threatened colleagues who do return.

Lonmin says workers already earn around 10,000 rand when bonuses and other compensation are included.

Outside the hall, Lonmin employee Benzi Tau told AFP: “We trust that our leaders will convince the employer to come to a sensible decision. So far they haven’t showed any sympathy to our need.”

Police opened fire on striking workers at the mine on August 16, killing 34, after an escalating stand-off between rival unions that had already killed 10 people including two police officers.

The incident was the worst day of police violence in South Africa since the end of white-minority apartheid rule in 1994.

Mediator Bishop Jo Seoka from the South African Council of Churches nonetheless struck an upbeat tone Wednesday before entering the venue.

“I’m very optimistic because this is the first time that all the parties are meeting. We are positive,” he said.

An official from South Africa’s labour dispute resolution agency said the talks would last until Friday.

The labour ministry is facilitating the talks between the London-listed firm and unions including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and smaller rival the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Representatives of the striking miners who say they do not belong to any union are also attending.

“We will not move from the (demand) for 12,500 rand,” said Zolani Bodlani during a short break from the talks, before he hung up the phone.

High Commissioner Dineo Ntoane of neighbouring Lesotho — a country completely surrounded by South Africa which lost four miners in the violence — also came to the talks “to represent the interests of the Basothos”.

South African authorities earlier said a miner from another neighbouring country, Swaziland, had also been killed.

Meanwhile the court case for over 250 miners arrested after the strikes continued in Pretoria, where the prosecution argued for a postponement pending further investigation. Ntoane said 25 of these were Basotho.

The men face charges ranging from public violence to murder, while 78 injured in the shooting are set to be arrested once they are discharged from medical treatment.