* Wildcat strike launched as media tours mine
* Confusion sends rand, platinum, shares on bumpy ride
* Union feud at heart of dispute
By Sherilee Lakmidas
MARIKANA, South Africa, March 5 Workers went on
a wildcat strike at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine in
South Africa on Tuesday, embarrassing the company as it launched
a publicity drive to try and show it had recovered from months
of deadly labour unrest.
The world's third-largest platinum producer invited
journalists to tour the mine, but the public relations exercise
backfired as thousands of workers took advantage of the media
spotlight to down tools at four shafts.
Confusion mounted after the company said they had all
returned to work, only to revise its statement when it became
clear miners at two of the shafts remained above ground.
The conflicting statements sent platinum prices,
South Africa's rand and Lonmin's shares on a bumpy
ride, highlighting nerves over the health of the country's key
mining sector after months of labour unrest.
Disruptions at Marikana are particularly closely watched as
it was the site where 34 striking miners were shot dead by
police last August in South Africa's deadliest security incident
since the end of apartheid in 1994.
"Things are still not right," said Johannes Liofo, a rock
drill operator at Lonmin's Karee mine. Speaking at a rock face
and drenched in sweat, he said he was still waiting for working
conditions to improve.
Lonmin said workers affiliated to the Association of
Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) refused to go
underground on Tuesday, demanding the closure of the offices of
a rival union.
AMCU has a reputation for militancy and one of its shift
bosses, Phahla Mekela, said there was still a high level of
absenteeism at the shafts, something he attributed to widespread
resentment among workers and a long list of demands still unmet.
Lonmin spokeswoman Sue Vey said the miners had taken
advantage of the presence of the world's media to stage a
stoppage and make their point.
"They made use of the opportunity to convey their message.
They have been heard," she said.
TURF WAR, ROUND TWO
AMCU Members are demanding the closure of the offices of the
rival National Union of Mineworkers because they say it is no
longer the largest body representing workers there.
The turf war between AMCU and NUM, which is a powerful
political ally of the ruling African National Congress, was at
the heart of much of the unrest that hit the platinum and gold
mining sectors in South Africa last year, triggering labour
violence that killed over 50 people.
The union rivalry has shaken investor confidence in Africa's
largest economy and the world's top platinum producer and led to
credit downgrades for the country.
The rand initially fell to a session low of 9.1173 and then
recovered after the company said the strike was over. Lonmin's
share price fell as much as 2 percent in Johannesburg while
platinum prices jumped over 1 percent, leap-frogging gold before
easing back to parity with bullion.
Investors are also nervously monitoring union reaction to
plans by Anglo American Platinum, the world's top
producer of the precious metal, to restore profits by
mothballing two mines and cutting up to 14,000 jobs.
The platinum belt northwest of Johannesburg remains a
flashpoint of social and labour tension after it was the scene
of riots last year and widespread intimidation as AMCU recruited
workers angered at the NUM leadership, which they see as out of
touch with the rank and file and too close to the ANC.
Glaring income disparities and grinding poverty in the
shantytowns around the platinum mines have also fueled the