S. Africa strike exposes labor pains

By Susan Njanji, AFP

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s deadly platinum mine strike exposed deep-rooted labor troubles in an industry already buckling under soaring production costs and depressed demand for the metal. The illegal strike that started on Aug. 10 left 10 dead in battles between members of different unions at Lonmin’s Marikana mine outside Johannesburg. Police were called in, and gunned down 34 protesters Thursday. The killings horrified the country and brought back memories of apartheid brutality, but analysts said the Lonmin mine incident was a culmination of troubles in the platinum mines, the largest employer in the mining sector. South Africa sits on more than 80 percent of the world’s platinum deposits and is responsible for three-quarters of global production of the metal, mostly used in catalytic converters to cut auto pollution and in jewelry. “The platinum industry has struggled since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008,” said Alex Benkenstein, senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

“Even before the events at Marikana we saw signs of an industry in trouble, with earlier strikes at Impala Platinum and Aquarius Platinum, and Royal Bafokeng Platinum announcing a 60-percent drop in first-half earnings for 2012.” At least three people died in the Aquarius violence, also linked to the same union feud earlier this year. About a month ago, Anglo American Platinum was hit with a weeklong work stoppage. All of the strikes have been staged by rock drill operators — the men who go hundreds of meters (yards) underground to break up the ore-bearing rocks in search of the nuggets of the white mineral. “Theirs is the most dangerous job in the mining industry. They go down carrying 25 kilograms of drilling equipment,” said John Cope, director of Bench Marks Foundation, a church-based group that studies working and living conditions of the mainly migrant miners.