Thousands of miners at Lonmin’s Marikana operations in South Africa returned work on Thursday, ending a six-week strike in which 46 people died as nearby mines faced strikes by workers demanding similar raises.
Striking workers from Anglo American Platinum’s (Amplats) Rustenburg mine barricaded a street with burning tyres as a police helicopter hovered overhead and armed officers backed by armoured vehicles and water cannons were on stand-by close by.
Days after soldiers were deployed, South African President Jacob Zuma’s office announced on Thursday that he has ordered military forces to assist police trying to control labour unrest in the nation’s crucial mining sector.
Despite resolution of the longest and bloodiest strike, two more deaths were reported.
The miners were in jubilant mood after securing wage rises of up to 22 per cent.
“I feel very happy that I can go back to work now,” said Nqukwe Sabulelo, a rock-driller at the mine, 100 km northwest of Johannesburg. “I’m going to live well now.” Yet like Rustenburg, other mines faced strikes as wage demands spread.
Amplats, the world’s biggest platinum producer, is threatening legal action if the wildcat strikers do not return to work on Thursday.
“We’ll buy 20 litres of petrol and if police get violent, we’ll make petrol bombs and throw them at them,” said Lawrence Mudise, an Amplats rock driller, holding up a sign demanding 16,700 rand ($2,000) in monthly pay.
Police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse a crowd of men carrying spears and machetes in a squatter camp near the site a day earlier.
“We’ll not go to work until we get what we want. Our kids have been shot at, our families have been terrorised and brutalised, but we are not going back to work,” one miner, who did not wish to be named, said.
Last month Lonmin miners from rival unions armed with machetes died in clashes before a standoff in which police shot dead 34.
It was the bloodiest security incident since the end of apartheid in the 1990s and sent platinum prices more than 20 per cent higher.
Amplats said disruptions at its mine posed a threat to the site’s future.
“(The) operations are already under considerable economic pressure”, it said in a statement. “Any further delays in returning to work will only increase the risk to the long-term viability of these mines.” As the return to work began in earnest at Lonmin’s Marikana, workers shouted “We are reporting for work” in Fanagalo, a pidgin mix of Zulu, English and other African languages.
Zuma’s office said he was invoking the Constitution to use the military to support police “in the prevention and combating of crime as well as the maintenance of law and order in the Marikana Area ... and other areas around the country where needed” until Jan. 31. The notice from the presidency referred to section 201 (2) of the Constitution, which states that “only the President, as head of the national executive, may authorise the employment of the defence force.”
Some 15,000 miners at the KDC West operation of Gold Fields, the world’s fourth largest bullion producer, are holding an illegal strike.
The rank and file are discontent with the local leadership of the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) but their stance has been given fresh impetus by the Lonmin settlement.