16 Aug 2012

South African police fire on striking miners

South African police open fire against thousands of striking miners armed with machetes and sticks at a platinum mine leaving several corpses lying on the ground, eyewitnesses report.

Gia Nicolaides, a reporter for Eyewitness News in South Africa, told Channel 4 News how the violence took place after a stand-off lasting a week between police and protesters at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, in the North West province.

She said: “There were about 400 policemen, and around 4,000 protesters. The protesters had gathered on a hill top near the mine shaft. Police had been trying to negotiate a truce. The protesters were armed with weapons, including spears and firearms and tangas [a South African knife], and police asked them to hand them over.

“They refused to. Then the police started moving closer. The protesters lifted their weapons, and moved closer as well.

“I don’t know what initially started the whole thing – it was difficult to see because there were so many people nearby. But I heard rubber bullets being fired, and what I assume were live rounds.

“It must have lasted several minutes. Then crowds scattered, and started moving up towards the mountain areas. I tried to move slightly behind the police vehicle at the time. There were several bodies there. I’m not sure how many yet, but I counted five myself.”

The events were said to have unfolded after police laid out barricades of barbed wire, but were outflanked by miners. A South African news agency reports there are 18 fatalities, although the count is still on at the rocky outcrop near the mine, 100km north west of Johannesburg.

Police officers said talks with leaders of the radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) had broken down, leaving no option but to disperse them by force.

“Today is unfortunately D-day,” spokesman Dennis Adriao said.

Ten people, including two policemen, have died in almost a week of fighting between rival worker factions at the mine, the latest platinum plant to be hit by fallout from an eight-month union turf war in the world’s main producer of the precious metal.

On Wednesday, up to 3,000 police officers, including members of an elite, camouflage-wearing riot control unit backed by helicopters and horses, confronted the striking rock-drill operators, but there were no clashes.

‘Going nowhere’

Before the police advance, Joseph Mathunjwa, president of AMCU, which has been on a big recruitment push in South Africa’s platinum mines, said there would be bloodshed if police moved in.

“We’re going nowhere,” he shouted through a loudhailer, to cheers from the crowd. “If need be, we’re prepared to die here.”

The unrest has forced the London-headquartered owner to halt production at all its South African operations, which account for 12 per cent of global platinum output.

Lonmin said it had lost the equivalent of 15,000 ounces of platinum from the six-day disruption, and was unlikely to meet its full-year production target of 750,000 ounces.

Its London-listed shares were down more than 6 per cent on Thursday, bringing total losses since the violence began to more than 13 per cent.

The Marikana strikers have not made their demands explicit, although much of the bad blood stems from a turf war between AMCU and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the dominant union for the last two decades.

At least three people were killed in a similar round of fighting in January that led to a six-week closure of the world’s largest platinum mine, run by Impala Platinum. That helped push the platinum price up 15 per cent.

South Africa is home to 80 per cent of the world’s known platinum reserves, but rising power and labour costs and a sharp drop in the price of the precious metal this year have left many mines struggling to keep their heads above water.