Miners on strike chant slogans as they march in Nkaneng township outside the Lonmin mine in Rustenburg May 13, 2014. South Africa sent more police to the strike-hit platinum belt on Tuesday to protect miners returning to work this week as producers pushed ahead with plans to end the sector's longest and most costly bout of industrial action. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS COMMODITIES CIVIL UNREST EMPLOYMENT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Johannesburg - Workers at the world's top platinum producers on Thursday looked set to back a deal brokered between union leaders and miners to end the longest mining strike in South Africa's history.

As union members continued to debate the plans, Lonmin shop steward Bob Ndude said workers had agreed to back a wage offer put forward by the companies on the basis that several hundred fired workers were re-hired.

Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin earlier on Thursday said they had reached “in principle undertakings” with union leaders to end the 21-week deadlock over pay.

A mining source told AFP the deal included a R1 000 raise in monthly salary for the lowest-paid workers each year over “anything from three to five years”.

Local media reported that Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) leaders had taken a revised wage offer from the producers to workers, who had gathered at mines near Rustenburg, north-west of Johannesburg.

“The workers have told the union leaders to accept the offer, but on one condition,” Ndude told AFP after a meeting with union leaders.

“Workers agreed that the offer should only be taken if those who were fired last month get their jobs back.”

Amcu leaders were not immediately available to comment. Unions are expected to give feedback to employers on Friday.

The strike began when more than 70 000 workers downed tools on January 23, demanding that their basic salary be more than doubled to R12 500 per month.

Employers called the demand unaffordable, and a series of negotiations, including recent government intervention, failed.

Mining Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi warned this week that the mines could close if the strike continued, throwing thousands of people out of work and cutting off a vital source of exports.

South Africa holds around 80 percent of the world's known platinum reserves, and platinum group metals raked in 9.0 percent of export earnings last year.

The strike helped push the economy into its first contraction since the global economic crisis five years ago in the first quarter of this year, raising the spectre of recession.

The new deal sought “to afford employees the best possible increase under the current financial circumstances”, the companies said.

“Thereafter, and should an agreement be reached, the companies will be assisting employees to ensure a safe return to a normal working environment,” they said.

Lonmin spokeswoman Sue Vey told AFP the three firms' chief executives and Amcu leaders held “informal meetings” in the 48 hours leading up to the agreement, which was finalised on Wednesday.

Lonmin envisaged restarting mining operations by July, she said.

“We would obviously provide a period of time for people to return from where they have been.

“After that will be the medicals (checkups). Realistically it might be a first of July start,” she said.

If agreed, the deal would be backdated from last October up to the start of the strikes in January. The funds would be paid within seven days, said Vey.

“It is important that people get money in the pocket,” she said.

Implats spokesman Johan Theron told AFP earlier that full operations could take three months or even longer to get under way.

Analyst Peter Leon, head of African mining and energy at the law firm Webber Wentzel, told AFP: “I think this is potentially very good news and exactly the sort of breakthrough we have all been waiting for.

“It obviously now depends on whether Amcu’s membership agree with the 'in principle' agreement, as well as what is in the agreement; hopefully this is a 'win win' outcome for all concerned.”

Signalling the government's impatience at the deadlock, ruling ANC party secretary-general Gwede Mantashe told a news conference in Cape Town on Thursday the strike was “beginning to impact on the performance of the economy in a big way”, he said.

Mantashe again accused “foreign citizens” and “foreign organisations” of driving the strike - a charge he first made at the weekend - without naming them.

Local media reported that Mantashe has been pointing to Liv Shange, a Swedish national and deputy general secretary of the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp).

She has termed his remarks xenophobic.

The strike had become “political”, Mantashe said, accusing the radical Economic Freedom Fighters party of also playing a direct role in the negotiations. - AFP