Some 2,400 miners found themselves trapped half a mile beneath South Africa’s bush veldt when militant trade unionists mounted a wildcat protest against the suspension of four shop stewards.
Thembelani mine, Rustenberg – The action at Thembelani mine, owned by Anglo American Platinum, was the latest episode in the industrial unrest that threatens a central pillar of South Africa’s economy. Last year, strikes cost the mining industry over £1 billion and the violence surrounding them claimed at least 50 lives.
Nature has endowed South Africa with immense natural wealth: the country possesses the biggest platinum reserves in the world and provides two thirds of global supply of the precious metal. Because of rising costs and falling commodity prices, however, two thirds of South Africa’s platinum mines are believed to lose money.
The miners at Thembelani were trapped underground on Friday when militants seized control of the lift shafts. For some hours, the mine was paralysed.
Anglo American Platinum, the world’s biggest producer of the precious metal, said that every employee had been reminded that there was “zero tolerance” of “any illegal actions which include intimidation, threats of violence and assault”. The company added that it would “not hesitate” to “take appropriate measures” against “any employee who instigates or participates in any of the illegal activities”.
Mpumi Sithole, spokesman for Anglo American Platinum, said the action took place after disciplinary proceedings were launched against four shop stewards. She added that the situation had since been “resolved” and the miners were able to come above ground after a “few hours”.
Few of the miners at Thembelani were willing to speak about the protest. One man who was trapped underground said: “We found that we could not embark at the station to leave the mine. We were not allowed up. I don’t know why.”
Another said that when the action began “we were told to stay underground”.
Bitter rivalry between two trade unions can make it prudent to keep quiet. A new organisation has emerged to challenge the established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) for members and loyalty.
The more radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) accuses the NUM of failing to stand up for ordinary miners. The NUM’s official alliance with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) exposes it to the charge that it forms part of an establishment ignoring the welfare of ordinary miners.
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