S Africa mine protests hit world No 1 platinum firm

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2012, 9:35pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2012, 9:35pm

Labour unrest sweeping through South Africa’s mining sector hit top world platinum producer Anglo American Platinum on Wednesday, with stick-waving miners blockading roads leading to shafts and calling for a shut-down of operations.

At the firm’s Bathopele shaft in the heart of the platinum belt, a column of 1,500 chanting marchers confronted riot police who were backed by armoured vehicles. The protesters jeered at workers inside the plant, a repeat of action taken on Monday at rival Lonmin’s nearby Marikana mine, where police shot dead 34 protesters on August 16.

“We are here to say to the men that work here that you must join us in the strike. We are not here to fight,” one man, who said he was an employee of Anglo American Platinum, also known as Amplats, told reporters. He declined to give his name.

The platinum price jumped as much as three per cent to US$1,654.49 an ounce, its highest since early April, amid fears of more disruption to supplies of the precious metal used in jewellery and vehicle catalytic converters.

South Africa is home to 80 per cent of known reserves. The platinum price has gained nearly 20 per cent since the police shootings at Marikana, the bloodiest security incident since the end of apartheid in 1994.

The “Marikana massacre” has poisoned industrial relations across the mining sector and become a potent symbol of the failure of the ruling African National Congress to deliver on promises to reduce poverty in the post-apartheid era.

The bloodshed and the government’s inability to resolve the unrest undermining already shaky growth in Africa’s biggest economy is also fuelling a campaign against President Jacob Zuma, who faces an internal ANC leadership battle in December.

Amplats said some operations had been halted by what it described as “widespread cases of intimidation”.

Police said the trouble started with a confrontation between 1,000 demonstrators and mine security on Tuesday night before spreading to other shafts in the heart of the platinum belt around Rustenburg, 100 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg.

Four Amplats mines near Rustenburg represent almost 17 per cent of total production by the company, which accounts for 40 per cent of world platinum output.

They employ more than 19,000 people, but have come under pressure since a collapse in platinum prices in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Analysts expect them to be targeted as “restructuring candidates” by Amplats parent company Anglo American.