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South Africa labor strikes, unrest expand to farms

Source : AP
Last Updated: Wed, Nov 14, 2012 23:15 hrs

Down a two-lane road, where slag heaps tower and miners' shack homes crowd against each other, the labor unrest now gripping South Africa first caught fire.

Mining companies here outside of Rustenburg, a city about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, saw workers walk off the job and continue to demand higher wages, even after violence during six weeks of strikes and a mass police shooting at one mine killed 46 people. The strikes recently spread to agriculture, South Africa's other major economic engine, as day laborers burned farms and fought with police Wednesday in violence that left at least one person dead and five others injured.

The unrest has shaken South Africa, a nation now free from apartheid-era laws, but not of its legacy of economic disparities between whites and blacks. And though the grip of the strikes appear to have loosened, the damage done to South Africa's anemic economy could last even longer.

"Even if I can take you to my house, my fridge is empty," said Gaddafi Mdoda, a labor organizer outside a shuttered mine shaft owned by Anglo American Platinum Ltd. "It's hard to survive."

The unrest began in August at the Lonmin PLC Marikana platinum mine, only a few miles down the road from Anglo American Platinum. Violence between miners and guards killed 12 people, while police later opened fire on miners and killed 34 of them. An investigation into that shooting continues.

The nation recoiled at the killings, while Lonmin ultimately gave workers raises of up to 22 percent. Those raises, as well as shock at the killings, caused other workers at mines down this road to walk off the job.

Mining drives the economy of South Africa, which remains one of the world's dominant producers of platinum, gold and chromium. Since the strikes began, world platinum prices have risen about $200 an ounce to almost $1,600 as of Wednesday trading. In September, President Jacob Zuma said the strikes already had cost the nation about 4.5 billion rand (nearly $563 million).

Yet black miners long have faced low salaries and poor living conditions in shantytowns often beset by alcoholism, drug abuse and prostitution.

The same goes for salaries of day laborers working in agriculture in South Africa, another major part of the nation's economy. The minimum wage for a farm worker is just about 70 rand ($8) and the top wage typically earned is just slightly more than that. Over the last few days, workers have said they want the minimum wage to rise to 150 rand ($17) a day.

Wednesday, their protest turned violent as workers set fire to some farms, overturned a police truck and confronted officers in riot gear in the country's Western Cape. The police fired tear gas to drive away protesters, as the sounds of gunshots could be heard in local television footage.

One man was killed in the violence "as a result of police action," police Lt. Col. Andre Traut told the South African Press Association. At least five other people were injured.

Traut declined to discuss casualty figures when reached Wednesday night by The Associated Press.

"Police officers are deployed to affected areas to maintain law and order," he said.

Government and union officials later said that a deal had been put before farm laborers, but it was unclear if they accepted. Most of the laborers work in vineyards supporting South Africa's wine industry, the world's eighth largest overall producer.

Unrest also has continued at the mines. Police said they arrested 37 mineworkers Tuesday near an Xstrata PLC mine after miners threw stones at cars and burned tires. Authorities also said they found the body Tuesday of a miner from Mozambique killed near the Anglo American Platinum mines.

At Anglo American Platinum, also known as Amplats, workers began their strike more than eight weeks ago. The company fired 12,000 workers and then reinstated them, though the miners still have not returned to work. In a statement Wednesday to investors, the world's largest platinum producer said its year-end earnings "will decrease by more than 20 percent" compared to last year. It blamed the strikes in part for the losses.

The unrest has, however, showed signs of easing in recent days. AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., the world's third largest gold bullion producer, said in a statement Wednesday that its Mponeng mine in South Africa had returned to normal operations after earlier violence there.

Striking workers at Amplats faced a deadline Wednesday to return to work, but shafts remained empty. Workers gathered under umbrellas early that morning near two mine shafts to listen to their leaders describe a wage offer involving a one-time 4,500 rand ($500) payment, as well as either a monthly pretax allowance of 600 rand ($70) or a pretax salary increase of 400 rand ($45). Workers had asked for 16,000 rand (about $1,800) in monthly pay.

It remained unclear if the deal would be accepted, though many acknowledged that the weeks of striking had begun to take a toll.

"We'll look for the percentage of the majority," Mdoda, the labor organizer, said. "If the other shafts, maybe the four of them they are saying we are taking the offer, the three must withdraw and join the others just because if you can't beat them you must join them."

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Online:

AngloGold Ashanti Ltd.: www.anglogold.com

Anglo American Platinum Ltd.: www.angloplatinum.com

Lonmin PLC: www.lonmin.com

Xstrata PLC: www.xstrata.com

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .



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