JOHANNESBURG A senior member of South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was shot dead overnight in the restive platinum belt town of Marikana, a union spokesman said on Friday.
No motive was yet known for the killing of the NUM official near a mine owned by Lonmin, whose Marikana operations lay at the center of a union turf war last year and where police shot dead 34 striking miners.
"He was killed last night. We don't know why at this stage, but there appears to be a resurgence of violence in the area," NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka told Reuters.
The NUM has lost tens of thousands of members in the platinum shafts to a rival group, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
That rivalry cost dozens of lives in 2012 and sporadic killings have continued occurred this year. The NUM official, who has not been named, died as his union lays the groundwork to try to regain its influence in the platinum belt.
NUM is a close ally of the African National Congress, so this campaign has high political stakes as the ruling party tries to rally support for general elections due next year.
Police spokesman Thulani Ngubane confirmed a man had been shot on Thursday night but also said the reason was unknown.
"He was on his way to the informal settlement that is next to Lonmin. As he was about to pick up his girlfriend, four men opened fire at his vehicle. He got out of the car and he got hit by seven bullets and then died on the scene," he said.
Lonmin spokeswoman Sue Vey said the victim had been an NUM shaft chairman at the company's Western Platinum mine.
Earlier this year Lonmin recognized the AMCU, which is known for its militancy, as the majority union at its operations. It stripped bargaining rights and even office space from other unions, including the NUM.
RETAKING THE PLATINUM BELT
The police killings of the striking miners in August 2012 marked the worst security incident since the end of apartheid in the 1990s. Violence has not reached last year's levels but the platinum belt remains tense.
Gang-land style killings have become a feature of the shantytowns around the mining centers of Marikana and Rustenburg. In August, miners from both unions were shot dead in Marikana.
NUM officials say the union is preparing to try to take members back. This will include a recruiting drive that will focus on what they say is the AMCU's failure to deliver on promises of significantly better pay and conditions.
"We don't make promises, we deliver. That's how our members will come back," NUM's Rustenburg regional secretary Sydwell Dokolwana told Reuters in a recent interview at his office.
NUM members milling around the office wore T-shirts with the slogan "Reclaim Impala" - a reference to Impala Platinum, the world's second largest platinum producer.
Retaking the platinum shafts will not be easy as the AMCU is already claiming successes at world No. 1 producer Anglo American Platinum (Amplats).
Its members ended an 11-day strike last week which cost Amplats 1 billion rand ($102 million) in lost revenue after the company said it would give "voluntary separation" packages to 3,300 employees who will be made redundant.
This means they will get more compensation and the AMCU also says its pressure helped to make Amplats reduce the job losses from a target of 14,000 as it tries to restore profits.
But tough wage talks are underway and it remains to be seen what the AMCU can extract from the platinum firms. Its battle cry is a "living wage" of at least 12,500 rand ($1,300) a month for the lowest paid workers, more than double current rates.
For the NUM and the ANC, the platinum belt remains a huge prize. NUM offices at the mines double-up as ANC branches; as Dokolwana told Reuters about NUM's aim of reclaiming the shafts he was also filling in his annual ANC membership card.
It is also a question of long-term survival for the NUM as platinum is the one section of South Africa's mining industry with a labor-intensive future. The coal fields are heavily mechanized and employ relatively few while the gold industry is in decline.
But South Africa sits on close to 80 percent of the world's known supplies of platinum, used for building emissions-capping catalytic converters in cars. Geological constraints make it difficult to mechanize the industry, meaning it needs lots of workers who are potential union members.
Another NUM T-shirt that its Rustenburg members are wearing these days says "Relax ... NUM is here to stay." ($1 = 9.8204 South African rand)($1 = 9.8204 South African rand)
(Additional reporting by Sherilee Lakmidas; Editing by David Stamp)