South Africa police fire tear gas as mine unrest spreads

JOHANNESBURG — South African police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse striking miners at a gold mine near Johannesburg on Monday, the latest outbreak in a wave of labor militancy spreading from platinum mining into other parts of the sector.

The unrest occurred less than three weeks after police shot dead 34 striking miners at Lonmin's Marikana mine, the deadliest security incident since the end of apartheid, or white minority rule, in 1994.

The Marikana shooting, which local media dubbed a massacre, shocked South Africa and marred the image of Africa's biggest economy as the full extent of a breakdown in labor relations in the mining sector became apparent. World platinum prices have risen nearly 10 percent since the shooting.

In Monday's incident, mine owner Gold One International Ltd said about 60 workers at its Modder East site went on a wildcat strike, blocking half the company's employees from reporting for their shifts.

"The group, however, refused to disperse. The South African Police Service had to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the group," it said in a statement.

Police spokeswoman Pinky Tsinyane said four people were injured in the incident, which she described as a "shoot-out" between protesting miners, ex-miners and security guards.

"Police are investigating a case of attempted murder," she said, adding that four arrests had been made. "We understand that the ex-miners were assaulting the miners who were coming to work this morning."

In a separate dispute — but one born of similar social conditions — an illegal strike involving a quarter of the 46,000-strong workforce at the KCD East gold mine, owned by world No. 4 bullion producer Gold Fields, entered its third working day.

The government has been trying to broker a peace accord at the Lonmin platinum mine to cool off the feud between two rival unions that lies at the heart of the discord — and which appears to be spreading to other mines.

The Marikana strike stemmed ultimately from a turf struggle in the platinum sector between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the small but militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Many miners have accused the NUM of caring more about its political connections than about the plight of workers deep underground.

The 3,000 striking Marikana workers are mostly rock drill operators demanding 12,500 rand (US$1,500) a month in basic wages, more than double what they receive now.

Labor minister Mildred Oliphant, part of a government committee trying to broker an end to the dispute, raised hopes of a breakthrough by saying management and workers had agreed in principle to sign a two-year wage agreement.

But unions involved in the talks said a return to work was by no means certain.

"I don't share the same optimism," said Gideon du Plessis of the Solidarity trade union. "The workers have made it clear that they will not go back to work until such time that their wage demands are met."

Lonmin shares in Johannesburg rose nearly four percent amid hopes of a speedy resumption of mining, but lost all those gains by 1426 GMT as hopes of a breakthrough faded.

Lonmin said it had an average of 4.5 percent attendance across all its shafts on Monday morning and was hoping for labor peace so that it could resume extracting ore.

"An indefinite strike will ultimately threaten the jobs of more than 40,000 workers. We cannot go on indefinitely without normalizing operations and still escape the consequences of the mine not being operational," it said in a statement.

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