South Africa mine ‘tense’ as strike deadline passes

The mood at the Lonmin mine is “stable but tense,” police said Monday, the company-imposed deadline for strikers to come back to their jobs. Union officials did not respond to CNN calls on Monday.

About 3,000 drillers and assistant drillers at the mine in South Africa went on strike on August 10, demanding big pay increases.

The miners, who earn $300 to $500 a month, want their salaries raised to $1,500 a month.

Lonmin, the world’s third-largest producer of platinum, said no to the increase and called the strike illegal.

Last week, police fired on striking miners, killing 34 workers, wounding 78 and arresting 259 on various charges, including malicious damage to property, armed robbery, illegal gathering and possession of weapons.

Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega has said police “were forced to utilize maximum force to defend themselves.”

The company said Sunday it was telling nonstriking workers that “police consider it safe to report for duty again” Monday morning and was ordering strikers back to work or face possible dismissals.

Facing the ultimatum, one South African drill operator told CNN that he and his co-workers should honor their slain colleagues and hold out for a pay increase.

“Otherwise, they will have died in vain,” Cingisile Makhaba said Sunday.

Cyril Ramaphosa, an African National Congress executive committee member who owns shares in the mine, is donating $250,000 to pay for the funerals of those killed last week.

But Makhaba said the money is “of no use now. It won’t bring back the dead.”

“Where is this money coming from?” he asked. “They should have used it to increase our wages.”

Makhaba lives with his two children in a compound of one-room shacks he shares with eight other families.

“We work hard, but we live like animals,” he said.

Over the weekend, thousands of people gathered outside the platinum mine in anger over the shooting.

The situation was calm but tense as police stood near the protest Saturday and helicopters conducted surveillance.

The tragedy began unfolding a week ago when miners went on strike demanding pay increases at the mine in Marikana, near Rustenburg, about two hours northwest of Johannesburg.

“When there is a rock fall, it is generally the drillers who are the victims,” wrote journalist Greg Marinovich in the Daily Maverick newspaper. “It is the most dangerous job in the business.”

The violence is thought to have been sparked by a rivalry between two unions that wield a lot of power and influence in South Africa. The unions, accused of trying to outdo each other in negotiating wages, denied instigating the clashes.

Tensions at Marikana had mounted throughout the week.

The striking miners carried traditional panga machetes and gathered Thursday around a small hill. By then, at least 10 other people were dead from incidents that had occurred in the days before. Among them were two police officers who were hacked to death.

Journalists who were at Marikana said police seemed to be fed up with the miners and determined to resolve the issue.

“Yesterday the police were clear that today we are going to disarm them and remove them from the hill because the gathering is illegal,” Xolile Mngambi, a reporter for CNN affiliate ETV, said Friday.

By Thursday afternoon, another round of negotiations among the striking miners, the unions and Lonmin had failed.

A heavily armed police tactical response team moved in to disperse the miners.

To hear Phiyega, the police commissioner, describe it, the police weighed all their options and decided to fence in the miners with barbed wire — to compartmentalize them into more manageable groups.

“The armed protesters moved toward the police,” she said. “They were driven back with tear gas and rubber bullets. But when they fired, police used maximum force.”

But journalists at the scene could not say whether the protesters fired first.

“We cannot say to you the police were provoked,” Mngambi said.

Then, police unleashed a barrage of gunfire. One witness said it went on for three minutes.


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