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South Africa mining unrest spreads

Published on 12/09/2012

Rioting South African miners blocked access to shafts of platinum giant Amplats on Wednesday as officials sought to prevent the widening strike movement from spiralling into a nationwide revolt.

Maverick politician Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ruling African National Congress party this year, has galvanised mine workers since police killings at another platinum mine in August, and his plans to address the military unnerved the government.

The latest unrest broke out on roads leading to a shaft run by Amplats — the world’s top platinum producer — in the same region as the Lonmin plant where 45 people have died in a wildcat strike that started last month.

“There is a strike, mine workers are gathering,” police spokesman Thulani Ngubane told AFP. “They are rioting, barricading the roads with tyres, tree trunks and rocks.”

Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) denied its workers were on strike, saying only that some of its staff were unable to report for duty overnight amid intimidation on the way to Rustenburg plant, northwest of Johannesburg.

An AFP reporter on the scene however said there were no barricades around the mines by noon (1000 GMT), but around 1,500 striking workers were moving from shaft to shaft trying to stop those on the job to down their tools.

Workers “were unable to clock in for night shift due to fear of intimidation and threats by unidentified individuals in and around our Rustenburg operations,” Amplats spokesman Mpumi Sithole said in a statement.

At least 45 people have died — including 34 in a police shooting last month which has been described as the worst case of police violence since the end of apartheid — since a strike over pay was launched at the Marikana mine. A body was found bludgeoned to death on Tuesday.

The site is run by Lonmin, the world’s third biggest platinum producer, and workers there have yet to reach a deal with management and return to work.

Some unions and firebrand leader Malema have since whipped up Lonmin workers’ demand for a basic salary of 12,500 rands ($1,500) — a threefold increase on the industry average — into the centrepiece of a national campaign.

Malema has toured mining sites to fire up support for broader strikes, a move that sent jitters across a sector that accounts for a fifth of South African GDP and is a mainstay of Africa’s leading economy.

On Tuesday, speaking to thousands of workers at a gold mining town, Malema said every mine should lay down tools for five days every month until there is an industry-wide deal on the 12,500 rand baseline wage.

Malema, who was convicted of hate speech and expelled from the ANC for ill discipline earlier this year, has used the miners’ discontent to launch fresh attacks on President Jacob Zuma and his leadership.

The government has vigorously condemned what it describes as irresponsible rabble-rousing but Malema has struck a chord with many who see London-listed mining giants as the symbol of the social inequalities plaguing the country.

Plans by Malema to talk to the armed forces drew a stark warning from the government Wednesday.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told The Times newspaper that any bid to destabilise the military would be acted on, and she called on soldiers and the public to stand back from Malema’s actions.

“It is not going to be tolerated,” she said.

“The SANDF (South African National Defence Force) is the last line of defence of the sovereignty of the country. We cannot allow anyone to play political football with this institution,” she said.

The revolt sweeping the mining sector is taking an increasingly political dimension and has become a battleground for a leadership struggle ahead of a key ANC election in December.

Amid fears the ongoing strike movement could kindle simmering social and racial tensions, the government has sought to assure its partners that South Africa was still open for business and a stable destination for foreign investment.