Anger and disbelief greet Amplats mine closures

RUSTENBURG, South Africa Tue Jan 15, 2013 11:42am EST

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RUSTENBURG, South Africa (Reuters) - Covered in sweat and dust, workers at Anglo American Platinum's Khuseleka mine in South Africa emerged from a grueling underground shift on Tuesday to be told they were among 14,000 people about to lose their jobs in a massive corporate shake-up.

Their reactions ranged from disbelief to despair to anger, suggesting the restructuring by parent company Anglo American could trigger another wave of labor unrest in the world's leading producer of the precious metal.

"I don't believe this argument of low platinum prices, that they don't have money," said miner Tshepo Mokoena, shaking his fist angrily under the scorching sun of the platinum belt, 120 km (70 miles) northwest of Johannesburg.

"There are way too many managers here who get paid way too much. That's where the cost-cutting should be."

The platinum giant, commonly known as Amplats, says it needs to put Khuseleka under long-term "care and maintenance" - corporate-speak for indefinite closure - as part of a plan to return the $15 billion company to profit in the face of rising costs and weak platinum prices.

Drastic action was needed "to save the company", said Chief Executive Chris Griffith.

Many of Mokoena's colleagues, still in their white mining overalls and helmets, refused to buy the argument, underscoring the problems Amplats faces in pushing the plan through in the face of a skeptical workforce and government.

"Why this shaft and not another? This is not fair. I'm paying off a house. I'm supporting my brother. How can I do this without a job?" asked Kagiso Mmusi, 29, an engineering assistant who said he earns 6,400 rand ($730) a month.

As well as Khuseleka, Amplats plans to close Khomanani, another Rustenburg mine, and sell its nearby Union operations, with an overall loss of 14,000 jobs, a quarter of its workforce.

Before the plan was announced, labor activists in the nearby city of Rustenburg, hotbed of the militant Association of Construction of Mineworkers Union (AMCU), vowed to stage wildcat strikes if the company tried to cut jobs or close shafts.

MASS WALKOUTS

After last year's mass walkouts and weeks of violence and bloodshed, including the police killing of 34 pro-AMCU strikers at rival Lonmin's nearby platinum mine, that is no idle threat.

At Khuseleka's No. 1 shaft, where the miners live in a tin shack shanty town next to a huge rubbish dump, there is also a feeling Amplats is exacting revenge on those at the heart of the 2012 unrest, which cost the firm at least $380 million in lost output.

"They want to close this shaft because it is here where the strikes started. They want to get rid of the troublemakers," said Mokoena, a 35-year-old AMCU member.

AMCU's turf war with the dominant National Union of Mineworkers was at the root of much of last year's unrest, but it also gave vent to the wider discontent at the pace of change among many blacks South Africans in the two decades since apartheid.

"This was a big shock. I didn't expect this at all. Where will I get another job?" said a Khuseleka rock-drill operator who asked not to be named. "Not everyone will be transferred."

With a general election next year, the ruling African National Congress is seething at the prospect of mass job losses, especially since the government says it was kept in the dark about the Amplats plan until last week.

"There was never a consultation," mining minister Susan Shabangu told a news conference in Pretoria, trying hard to contain her anger as she accused Amplats management of betrayal and caring only about their share price.

"They've come up with their own plan, finalized their plan and told us," she said. "When the horse has bolted, then they come to us? Is that how it is going to work?"

($1 = 8.7109 South African rand)

(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley; Writing by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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