Lonmin chief executive Ben Magara (left) after accepting a memorandum from striking miners following a march to Lonmin's head office in Johannesburg on April 3. Now the company has given strikers until Wednesday to return to work. Photo: Reuters

Johannesburg - Lonmin and Impala Platinum (Implats) have pleaded with the government for police visibility in Rustenburg as tensions rise and the platinum belt strike’s cost to the industry hit R17 billion in lost revenue.

Cash-strapped employees are feeling the pinch and want to return to work but fear for their lives.

Four Lonmin employees were killed yesterday as workers started to return to work to meet the company’s deadline for them to do so by tomorrow.

“More mine security resources have been made available,” Lonmin chief executive Ben Magara said yesterday.

“We have also spoken to the government to ensure resources are available.”

Magara was speaking to journalists during a conference call on the company’s interim results, which were hurt by the protracted strike.

He said Lonmin had taken its cue from employees, who had shown what he called overwhelming support for the company’s campaign to woo them back to work via text messages and radio adverts.

“We cannot concede to” the demands of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), Magara said.

“We cannot afford it, we’d be setting a precedent if we accede to the demand.”

Implats said it had been in constant engagement with the government to bolster security for workers willing to return to work.

“It is up to the government to evaluate what is the best way to respond to our call for assistance. We cannot tell the government how to conduct its business,” Implats spokesman Johan Theron said.

The plea for security raises the temperature, recalling what happened in mid-August 2012 ahead of the killing of 44 people in clashes between police, security personnel and strikers near Lonmin’s Marikana mine.

Violence reared its head in the early hours of yesterday when two employees were reportedly hacked to death – allegedly by striking employees – while making their way to work at Lonmin’s Eastern Platinum operation.

Two others, a husband and wife, were attacked in their home at Bapong village. The couple had returned to work. The woman was reported to be a security guard and the man a miner at Lonmin.

Lerato Molebatsi, Lonmin’s executive vice-president for communications and public affairs, said the risk of violence was outside the mine premises, where mine security had no jurisdiction.

“Even if we have a plan for 10 000 security guards, they cannot work outside the property. The police have agreed to ensure more visibility,” Molebatsi said.

Lonmin, Implats and Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) unanimously condemned the recent violence yesterday.

In a joint statement, they said there had been at least 20 reported assaults over the past two days and a number of serious incidents of intimidation against employees and bus operators providing transport to mining company employees.

“Our employees wish to return to work but have expressed a fear of continued intimidation and violence. We call on Amcu to recognise and uphold the rights of those who wish to work without fear of intimidation or violence.”

Magara warned that restructuring of the group’s mines and job losses were inevitable because the strike had been longer than anticipated.

On Thursday the action will enter its 17th week.

“The depth of the restructuring will depend on the return to work date, and how we ramp up production… Our aim is to minimise retrenchments, but this is inevitable,” he said.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), whose members are not on strike, wants Lonmin to protect employees at all costs.

Erick Gcilitshana, the NUM’s health and safety secretary, said the violence was “a tactic to instil fear in people who want to return to work on Wednesday. It will be wrong to tell our members to return to work if there is no security.”

Lonmin posted an operating loss of $131 million (R1.36bn) in the half year to March, compared with a profit of $90m a year earlier. It reported a loss before tax of $278m compared with a profit of $54m last year.

In the period, the company reported a 43 percent drop in tons mined and a 19 percent decline in platinum sales.

Total refined production for the period – at 257 217 ounces of saleable platinum – was down 21 percent from last year. Platinum group metals produced amounted to 543 179 ounces, representing a 12 percent decrease year on year.

The basket price per platinum group metal ounce was down 16 percent to $1 056, Lonmin said, “despite supply side concerns around the strike”.

The third-largest platinum producer said it expected to ramp up production by next month.

Lonmin, Amplats and Implats approached employees directly to explain their latest revised offer after wage talks with Amcu collapsed last month.

“The law gives us a right to engage with our employees directly. We are hopeful that Amcu will allow them to return to work,” Magara said.

He said the company would start processing operations during this month, to process the remaining material in the pipeline.

“However, if the strike continues, we will fully deplete the pipeline and limit further cash outflow.

“Furnaces have been idled and our refinery plants have been shut during the strike period to save power and costs.”

About 70 000 Amcu members have been on strike for a R12 500 a month basic wage to be achieved over four years and have rejected the company’s revised offer.

Lonmin shares took a 3.64 percent hit to close at R47.60 on the JSE yesterday. Implats gained 1.13 percent to R119 while Amplats eased 0.54 percent to R486.