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Lonmin violence spirals

Dineo Faku

Violence apparently stemming from a dispute between two rival unions at Lonmin’s Western Platinum operations has claimed the lives of at least nine people, including two policemen who were hacked to death yesterday as authorities failed to bring the situation under control.

The violence marks an escalation of tension that has rocked Lonmin’s Marikana mine near Rustenburg since Friday, when 3 000 rock-drill operators went on an illegal protest over wage demands.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) blamed Lonmin, saying the company had not taken adequate measures to protect the workers.

Lonmin’s share price dropped as much as 2.2 percent during the day as investors fretted over the prospect of more chaos. The shares closed 1.1 percent lower at R94.53.

Among the dead were two security guards who were hacked to death at the weekend. Their car was set alight after they confronted a mob trying to force its way into NUM’s offices at the mine. Two members of the SAPS were hacked to death by a group of protesters near the Karee mine offices in the same vicinity, while police shot dead three protesters.

The body of a miner was found early yesterday with gunshot wounds. On Sunday police had recovered the body of another miner who had been hacked to death.

“We continue to speak to the unions to appeal for calm, and to totally support the police and government in their efforts to ensure appropriate resources are deployed to protect life, which must be paramount,” Lonmin chief executive Ian Farmer said.

Before the latest violence, the platinum industry was in the spotlight as falling demand, rising costs and economic uncertainty in the euro zone have piled on pressure, forcing major producers such as Eastern Platinum, Aquarius Platinum, Impala Platinum and Platinum Australia to suspend work at shafts that they deemed uneconomical to mine. Other producers had been forced to shed jobs, with Anglo American Platinum saying last month it would eliminate 727 jobs.

The violence is likely to unnerve foreign investors at a time when they are waiting for clarity on the contentious clamour for mine nationalisation by some elements within the ANC.

The platinum industry’s woes have been compounded by safety stoppages and fighting between NUM and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), a break-away union established by former NUM members.

NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka denied that the union’s members were involved in the violence. He put the blame on management.

“We cannot allow the platinum sector to come under siege. Our responsibility is to say to management do your work because your mandate is to ensure there is security of employees,” he said.

Jimmy Gama, the national treasurer of Amcu, said the underlying cause of the violence was low wages.

“The main issue is salaries. People are not happy.” Gama denied that there was any union rivalry.

Even though the latest killings have caused some miners to stay home, Lonmin said production continued as normal and the company hoped the violence would soon abate.

“To close a mine is a serious process. We are keeping operations going with those who are able to make it to work.”

Solidarity deputy general secretary Gideon du Plessis said three members of the union had sustained serious injuries in the unrest as they were assaulted outside the mine’s premises.

Solidarity had directed a letter to Lonmin demanding that the company ensure the safety of union members when they reported for duty, he added. “If the employer fails to meet this demand, Solidarity will withdraw its members from the workplace for safety reasons.”

Attempts to elicit comment from the Department of Mineral Resources about the violence at Lonmin’s operations were unsuccessful.

The latest incidents will add another dimension to the challenges confronting the department as it tries to minimise the fallout from the crisis in the platinum industry.

About two weeks, ago the Department of Mineral Resources promised to work with industry executives to limit job losses in the sector.

But the rivalry between NUM and Amcu is nothing new. Earlier this year 17 200 workers from Impala Platinum’s mine near Rustenburg were axed following an illegal six-week strike by disgruntled rock-drill operators. The strike pitted NUM members against Amcu members and resulted in four deaths and more than 50 miners being injured.

Vusi Mabena, the senior executive for transformation and stakeholder engagement at the Chamber of Mines, said the chamber would intervene at Lonmin only if it was invited to do so. “It’s early for the chamber to comment, this is a company-specific issue and the company is dealing with it. If they need the chamber to intervene [it will],” he said. – Additional reporting by Ayanda Mdluli

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