After record strike, life returns to South African platinum town

Tue Jun 24, 2014 11:51am EDT

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* Strike reduced Marikana to ghost town

* Community comes back to life as strike ends

* First pay cheques still weeks away

By Ed Stoddard

MARIKANA, South Africa, June 24 (Reuters) - An armoured vehicle carrying banknotes for an ATM machine rolled down Marikana's dusty main street on Tuesday, a rare sight for locals in the gritty South African mining town starved of cash during a five-month platinum strike that has just ended.

"I haven't seen a cash vehicle coming out this way in a long time," said Mohamed Moosa, who runs a general store in Marikana, a town 120 km (70 miles) northwest of Johannesburg that has been at the centre of the longest strike in South African history.

As the stoppage at the nearby shafts and smelter of London-listed Lonmin ground on month after month, the town all but emptied as miners and their families trekked back to their ancestral villages to sit it out.

The strike formally ended this week as Lonmin and larger rivals Anglo American Platinum and Impala Platinum signed a wage deal with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Workers were trickling back even before the deal was signed, giving Moosa's business a shot in the arm, but the strike has taken a massive toll on a town still haunted by the police killing of 34 AMCU strikers in August 2012, the bloodiest security crackdown since the end of apartheid two decades ago.

"For me, 2014 has been a write off," the 38-year-old Moosa told Reuters. "We are totally dependent on the miners. Last week it was still a ghost town here."

Outside his store, the streets were showing signs of life as heavy mining trucks rumbled towards Lonmin and a handful of drunks tottered along the side of the road, extending Monday night end-of-strike celebrations into late Tuesday afternoon.

"It's good the strike is over because business has been down, down," said 25-year-old Ishmail Chibail, a roadside hawker selling loose cigarettes and sweets.

Despite his optimism, it will be another month before Marikana gets a proper cash injection in the form of thousands of Lonmin employees receiving their first month-end pay cheques in nearly half a year.

The mining companies will take even longer to get back up to speed and have told investors they would not be resuming production of platinum, a precious metal used in jewellery and catalytic converters, before September.

Africa's most advanced economy, which contracted in the first three months of the year because of the strike, may suffer an even longer hangover as investors weigh up the prospects of more labour unrest in mining and beyond.

Wearing a green AMCU shirt, one Lonmin employee who only gave his name as Thomas was pragmatic.

"Tomorrow, let's go to work," he said. (Editing by Ed Cropley and Robin Pomeroy)

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