* Massive platinum strike set to start
* Court halts threatened stoppage in gold sector
* Implats shut operations ahead of strike
By Ed Stoddard
RUSTENBURG, South Africa, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Half of world platinum production is set to grind to a halt on Thursday as South Africa’s hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) vowed to press ahead with a strike over pay under the battle cry of a “living wage”.
AMCU, the platinum industry’s main trade union, plans to strike from Thursday at Implats, Anglo American Platinum and Lonmin, the top three producers of the metal used in emissions-capping catalytic converters in cars.
The union had also planned to strike in the gold sector but a court ruled that the strike be suspended pending a review of its legality.
However, Implats said it was closing its Rustenburg operations northwest of Johannesburg - mines, processing units and smelter - ahead of Thursday’s strike to ensure the safety of its employees.
Company spokesman Johan Theron also told Reuters that “people reporting for work will still be paid” even if operations remained suspended - a move that could weaken resolve on the picket lines.
Platinum traded near $1,455 an ounce late on Wednesday, near a three-month peak reached this week on the strikes, but it remained unclear how protracted the stoppage would be amid signs of emerging divisions in AMCU’s ranks.
Dissidents said this week they planned to form a rival union, accusing AMCU’s leadership, notably its president Joseph Mathunjwa, of recklessly pursuing a damaging strike they say many miners do not want and cannot afford.
But AMCU activists in Rustenburg on Wednesday night said the workers remained committed to a stoppage.
“The strike is still on from the early hours of Thursday,” Evans Ramokga, an AMCU member at Amplats, told Reuters.
AMCU is seeking a more than doubling of the basic entry wages from Amplats and Lonmin and smaller but still steep hikes from Implats, against offers from the companies of increases ranging from 7.5 to 8.5 percent, well above the current inflation rate of 5.4 percent.
The companies were battered by wildcat strikes in 2012 rooted in a turf war between AMCU and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), in which dozens of people were killed, and say they can ill afford big pay hikes now.
Mindful of the platinum belt’s recent blood-stained history, police said officers would be deployed to ensure the strike is not marred by violence.
As many as 100,000 workers or a fifth of South Africa’s mining labour force may down tools or be prevented from crossing picket lines in the stoppage.