JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African police are braced for possible violence ahead of Monday’s back-to-work deadline for striking workers at Lonmin’s flagship platinum mine, where 44 people died in labour strife last month, most of them at the hands of police.
Mineworkers have been given until Monday to report for duty after a month of wildcat industrial action but union officials suspected that these calls would be ignored, increasing tensions at Lonmin’s mines.
“The situation is tense. Anything can happen at any given moment,” police spokesman Thulani Ngubane said.
Scores of police have been camped out near the mine for more than three weeks since a bloody clash with the striking workers on August 16. Ngubane said more could be called in should there be any sign of trouble.
Union officials said they had heard reports that the striking miners, many of whom are unaffiliated with any known union, planned a march in defiance of a “peace accord” signed by the mine management and the main National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
The workers have vowed to stay off the job until they get wages of 12,500 rand ($1,500) a month, double what they now earn.
“Our hope is that people will respect the peace accord and return to work,” said NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka. “People have indicated that they wish to return to work but the high level of intimidation has stopped them.”
NUM represents the majority of Lonmin’s 28,000 employees but its dominance has been questioned by the militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which has been blamed for instigating the strike in its bid for more members.
AMCU and representatives of the striking workers refused to add their names to last week’s “peace accord”. AMCU officials did not answer their phones on Sunday.
Negotiations on the wage demand are scheduled to start at noon on Monday but only if the miners return to work first.
“If workers don’t come to work, we will still pursue the peace path. That is very, very necessary for us to achieve because this level of intimidation and people fearing for their lives obviously does not help anybody,” said Barnard Mokwena, Lonmin’s executive vice president in charge of human resources.
“For now it is a fragile process and we need to nurture it,” he said.
Conceding to the demands in full would set Lonmin back an additional $30 million a year and set a precedent for other producers, such as Anglo American Platinum and Impala Platinum, to do the same.
The world’s third largest platinum producer is already under financial pressure to restart operations as its idle mines are costing it 2,500 ounces in daily lost production.
Lonmin, which has had 327 million pounds ($524 million) knocked off its market capitalization since the strike started, has already cautioned that it is in danger of breaching debt covenants and may need to turn to the markets.
Analysts say it could need between $1 billion and $1.25 billion in new capital, or nearly three quarters of its current stock market value.
Editing by Ed Cropley and Jason Neely