South African police said they used stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse 3,000 “violent” striking miners Tuesday in the restive platinum belt near Marikana, where 34 workers were shot dead in 2012.
Strikers “carrying dangerous weapons, such as knobkerries (clubs) and sticks, blocked the road and were threatening to remove non-striking workers at the shaft”, police said in a statement.
Miners “threatened to attack the police with stones” and pushed officers around, the statement said, so police “were forced to use stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd”.
The incident occurred at Anglo American Platinum’s Khuseleka 1 facility in the country’s north, not far from Marikana, where police shot dead 34 miners in the worst violence since the end of apartheid.
It is the first instance of major unrest in the current sector-wide strike, now in its second week, and will raise fears of a return to bloodshed that has seen dozens of workers killed.
Police said two protesters aged 52 and 47 were arrested following Tuesday’s incident. They face charges of public violence.
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, 800 euros) — 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 seven-percent annual increase.
South Africa produces 80 percent 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.
Government-brokered talks to end the strike continued on Tuesday.
But AMCU has threatened the strike could go on for a month if no agreement is reached.
Strikes costing $36 million a day
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 labour 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 fatal police shootings 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 labour laws in South Africa lack flexibility and are only created to protect workers,” she said.
Lonmin CEO Ben Magara said significant changes had been made in the company’s industrial relations since the Marikana violence.
“Today we are in a different space altogether,” he said.
“The current strike is legal and protected, hence the subdued incidences in this strike compared to the 2012 Marikana strike, which was an illegal strike.”