File image: Reuters

Harmony Gold Mining’s decision to delay the opening of its Kusasalethu mine near Carletonville signals a potential flashpoint for fresh trouble after a wave of violent strikes last year.

The company’s decision comes as the mining sector starts the new year looking for ways to curb losses and chart the way forward.

The Kusasalethu mine would remain closed until the company had concluded a financial and operational review following an unprotected strike in December, Marian van der Walt, a Harmony Gold spokeswoman, said last week.

But the situation at the mine was becoming a humanitarian crisis, the Democratic Socialist Movement said on Friday, adding that 3 000 mineworkers had spent four nights in the open because the company had failed to implement a decision to re-open the mine hostels.

The decision had been reached during talks facilitated by the government between Harmony and the workers’ committee.

“This is an illegal lockout and illegal evictions by Harmony Gold – with no procedure followed, no notice – and it must be condemned,” said Mametlwe Sebei of the movement, a formation that has been advocating for improved labour relations, wages and working conditions at the mines.

Van der Walt said

Harmony was expected to give the market details on the comprehensive review of its Kusasalethu operation today.

Employees who returned to work following the year-end holiday break were told to go back home but about 200 miners refused, choosing instead to sit outside the main entrance of the mine on Thursday without realising that operations would be closed until further notice.

The trouble at Kusasalethu, meaning “our future” in Zulu, began in December when about 1 700 employees staged an underground sit-in at the mine demanding that their fellow employees, who had been suspended, be reinstated.

The stand-off at the mine underscores the uncertainty that continues to grip the industry in the wake of the upheaval spawned by last year’s unrest at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine in North West, where more than 40 people died in strike-related violence.

“The definite effect from the Marikana strike is the creation of uncertainty on an operational level,” Ebrahim Takolia, the executive lead of mining solutions at Deloitte Consulting, said on Friday.

“Mines close when they are not making money. This creates a lot of uncertainty and it becomes more difficult to keep the operations open as no one sees a future for the operations.”

Van der Walt said Harmony would continue to pay the salaries of more than 5 000 workers while operations at Kusasalethu remained closed, adding that the company expected workers to return home until a final decision was made.

Harmony fell 3.95 percent to R71.50 on the JSE on Friday.