22 Aug 2012

Zuma addresses miners in bid to quell South African unrest

As South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma returns to Marikana, where 44 people died during strike action by miners, fears grow that unrest will spread across the heartland of global platinum mining.

President Zuma was returning to Marikana to assess the work of the ministerial task team which he appointed to assist the families of those killed in strike action last week, and to address the miners (pictured, left).

He has been under pressure from his political opponents over his handling of the Marikana tragedy, in which 34 miners were shot dead by police at the climax of a violent industrial dispute. Zuma was criticised for going to Mozambique, to attend the South African development summit, as the unrest was growing, and for delays in his return after the violence last Thursday.

Former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema has been one of his most vocal critics. Malema attended a police station in Marikana today to lay charges of murder against police officers involved in the bloodshed (see box, below).

Julius Malema

Outside the police station Malema (pictured right) told tjhe media: “President Zuma doesn’t care about these people. When they were being murdered he knew there is a crisis here, he left this place, went to a different place (summit in Mozambique) out of the country, (he was) advised when he was out of the country to come back.

This is painful to all of us. It is not acceptable for people to die where talks can be held. South African President Jacob Zuma

“Ordinarily any president wouldn’t leave a situation where nine people died including two police officers, and then you leave your country knowing very well that there is a potential for crisis.”

Speaking to the miners this afternoon President Zuma said: “I could only meet police leadership on the day, I could not come here as it was late but I managed to go to hospital where some of the injured workers related what happened to me.

“I have already taken a decision to institute a commission of inquiry to investigate every aspect of what happened here. We want the truth.”

He added: “This is painful to all of us. It is not acceptable for people to die where talks can be held. But I do feel your pain and have come personally to express that. I am certain that the commission of inquiry will get to the bottom of what happened here.”

What happened at Marikana?

Rock drill operators from Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana have been striking since the start of August in an industrial dispute over pay. The miners are paid around 4,000 Soutn African rand a month, and want this figure tripled.

The strike action has been exacerbated by the presence of rival unions – the National Union of Miners (NUM), which has links to President Zuma’s government, and “upstart” union the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Ten people had been killed in violent clashes up until Thursday last week, including two police officers. Many of the striking miners have armed themselves with sticks and machetes.

On Thursday police opened fire on a crowd of miners, saying they were acting in self-defence; 34 miners were killed and many more injured.

In his previous visit Zuma had been keen to emphasise South Africa’s place as a safe haven for international investment. He said international investors had “derived great benefits from working in, and associating with South Africa”.

“We assure the South African people in particular that we remain fully committed to ensuring that this country remains a peaceful, stable, productive and thriving nation, that is focused on improving the quality of life of all, especially the poor and the working class.”

Lonmin Marikana mine (Reuters)

However Lonmin, the mining company at the centre of the strike action, is suffering financially – warning that it will not be able to repay its bank debts as it continues to face a staff shortage.

Constructive discussions are now taking place with Lonmin’s banking group to address this potential situation. Lonmin statement.

Mine operations were halted at the Marikana site (pictured, left) over a week ago. The mine was re-opened on Monday and around a third of the 28,000 employees returned to work. Lonmin said that one in five of the 3,000 striking rock driller operators were among those who had returned.

Lonmin had previously threatened striking miners with the sack if they did not return to work – but has done a U-turn on the plans in order to prevent further violence.

But the company also warned today that it is likely to breach its banking covenants due to the industrial action. “Constructive discussions are now taking place with Lonmin’s banking group to address this potential situation,” the company said.

On top of this there are signs emerging that the unrest is spreadig to other mines within South Africa’s platinum-rich Bushveld igneous complex – where the vast majority of the world’s platinum is mined from a relatively small area (see box below).

Reports emerged today that two other mining companies were being affected by miner unrest.

Bushveld Igenous Complex

Around 80 per cent of the world’s platinum is mined from the Bushveld igneous complex in South Africa. When platinum was discovered there in 1924 it led to a “platinum rush” by many of the major mining companies.

The complex covers an area of around 280 miles from east to west, and 185 miles north to south – and was formed around two billion years ago.

The world’s number one platinum producer, Anglo American Platinum, said today that it had received a demand for a pay increase from its workers. Anglo American has mines across the length of the Bushveld, including in Rustenburg where the Lonmin Marikana mine is located.

Meanwhile at Royal Bafokeng Platinum’s Rasimone site, approximately 30 miles from Marikana, a trade union leader has reported that workers have been blocked from entering the mine by their colleagues.

“There is a very high chance that this is going to be contagious,” said SBG Securities platinum analyst Justin Froneman. “Whether or not it has been orchestrated and arranged remains to be seen, but certainly the fact that this has spread in what we viewed as a previously stable labour force is slightly concerning.”