By Ed Stoddard
Johannesburg - South Africa's mining industry is being sucked into a vicious circle as labour unrest spreads from platinum to gold with steep wage demands neither sector can afford.
Fueled by outrage over the police killing of 34 striking miners in August, the militancy in the world's top platinum producer is leading to closed shafts and job losses, triggering in turn more union and social tension.
“This may be the beginning of a 'Miner Spring'. Perhaps we have reached a point now where the inequity in the pay scale would lead to broader civil disobedience and protest action,” said Tony Healy, an expert on South African labour law.
The worker stridency has found fertile soil in the squalor of the poor communities that ring the mines in South Africa, the continent's wealthiest economy but one scarred by the inqualities of its racist past.
It is also the most serious challenge since the end of white rule in 1994 to the unwritten pact at the heart of post-apartheid political and economic power: unions aligned to the ruling ANC deliver modestly higher wages for workers, while also ensuring labour stability for big business.
Operations have been frozen for almost a month at world No. 3 platinum producer Lonmin after violence erupted with the killing of mine security guards and two police officers. The mass shooting by police followed days later.
Although the most violent, it was just one in a string of incidents caused by a turf war in the platinum belt between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
Aquarius Platinum shut its Everest mine in June, citing labour infighting, with the loss of 2,000 jobs. Lonmin has warned if its strike is prolonged, 40,000 jobs will be lost.
But worker anger at NUM is rife, with its leaders seen as too close to management and the ANC, its senior partner in an official governing alliance.
At Marikana on Wednesday, demonstrating miners chanted “We hate Zokwana” - a reference to NUM President Senzeni Zokwana.
The discontent has enabled AMCU to recruit thousands of disenchanted NUM members at Lonmin, Impala Platinum and Aquarius Platinum. They are also active at Anglo American Platinum, the world's biggest producer, although have not had as big an impact.
In response, NUM has signaled it is prepared to push its own wage demands harder, by insisting that negotiations on two-year collective agreements in the gold and coal sectors start several months early.
“We are strongly of the view that we need to arrest the dissatisfaction that members have over their wages and start talking sooner rather than later. Maybe as early as February next year,” spokesman Lesiba Seshoka told Reuters.
NUM members have been getting pay rises above inflation but at the bottom of the pay scale that does not go far as most mineworkers have on average eight dependents. - Reuters