January 30, 2014 / 4:15 PM / 4 years ago

Potatoes for a week: a South African platinum miner on strike

* Typical South African miner has many dependants

* Prolonged strike may test workers’ resolve

* Strike has hit world’s top platinum producers

By Ed Stoddard

MERITING, South Africa, Jan 30 (Reuters) - South African miner Venter Mulutsi has one food item in his small fridge: a bag of potatoes that he hopes will last a week.

Beyond that, the Impala Platinum miner who has been on strike for a week with around 100,000 of his comrades from the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), has a bag of maize meal and a loaf of bread.

But with the fatalism and resolve displayed by many a miner, he says he is prepared to extend the strike until his union wins its goal of a “living wage” of 12,500 rand ($1,100) a month.

The bulk of rival Anglo American Platinum and Lonmin’s operations in South Africa have also been hit by the AMCU stoppage, which has affected over 40 percent of global output and dealt a fresh blow to investor confidence in Africa’s largest economy.

“What difference does it make? Even when I’m working I’m only earning enough for food and rent,” Mulutsi, 40, a mechanical assistant at Implats, told Reuters at his one-room, cinder-block home that gets as hot as the underground shafts in summer.

Holding a pay slip from late 2013, he points to a line that shows net pay of 4,268.66 for the month. A faded slip from 2008 shows he took home just 2,000 rand that month.

He may not see another one for some time after AMCU mass rallies on Thursday rejected pay hike offers from the three companies of between 7.5 and 9 percent.

The 12,500 rand demand is more than double the basic entry-level wage. The three companies say they cannot afford the increases as they recover from a wave of 2012 wildcat strikes rooted in a turf war between AMCU and its arch-rival, the National Union of Mineworkers, in which dozens of people were killed.


But the management maths cuts little ice with the likes of Mulutsi, who says it will take 11 years to reach 12,500 rand a month if he accepts the companies’ latest offer.

“By then I’ll be old and almost a pensioner,” said Mulutsi, a short, stocky man clad in a shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Soweto soccer giants Kaiser Chiefs.

The road outside Mulutsi’s house is paved but many in the dusty township on the outskirts of Rustenburg, 120 km (70 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, are not.

Nearby, in the shadow of the hoisting gear for Implats’ Number 1 shaft, cattle graze in communal fields and chickens scratch in the earth between the small homes.

Like many miners, Mulutsi has other mouths to feed: a wife and two kids, plus the two children of a destitute sister. They live in Delareyville, a small town 200 miles away in a remote part of North West, the self-styled “platinum province.”

That brings a variety of bills to pay, from cooking gas to school books. “My oldest daughter is in high school now and all the money is going to her,” he said.

The platinum belt strikes present a challenge to President Jacob Zuma and the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which faces an election in around three months.

The ANC is almost certain to maintain its outright majority thanks to its continued status as the party of black liberation. But Victory will not be thanks to its standing in the mines - a point summed up by Mulutsi.

“This government took over in 1994 but we are still slaves in this country,” he said. ($1 = 11.2237 South African rand) (Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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