South Africa's east platinum belt hit by over 400 social unrest incidents since 2016

BURGERSFORT, South Africa (Reuters) - The eastern limb of South Africa’s platinum belt has been hit by over 400 incidents of social unrest impacting mining operations since the start of 2016, according to data compiled by Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) and provided to Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: A haul truck is seen at the Mogalakwena platinum mine in Mokopane, Limpopo province, South Africa, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo

The restive region in the country’s northeast has been a flashpoint of violence rooted in community grievances over jobs, revenue flows and conflict between rival unions that threatens production in the world’s top producer of the precious metal.

Last week six workers were burnt to death in the area when the bus they were on was set alight by a petrol bomb. The bus was transporting them to their shifts at the Modikwa platinum mine operated by African Rainbow Minerals and Amplats.

The compiled incidents range from roadblocks to wildcat strikes to physical assaults against miners.

On average over the period, either a roadblock, wildcat strike, march or act of violence took place in the region every second day which affected a mining operation in some way.

The data does not give estimates on production or revenue losses and does not compare with earlier periods. But it provides a sobering snapshot of a region in a perpetual state of unrest that has undermined the viability of some operations.

It shows that from Jan. 1 2016 to March 31 of this year, there were 225 roadblocks in the region that disrupted mining operations. These typically involve protesters who halt traffic with burning tyres and other debris.

Over the same period, there were 14 marches that were sanctioned by authorities and 107 illegal marches, which meant they did not receive police permission in advance.

The period also saw 40 wildcat strikes or work stoppages and there were at least 55 recorded acts of violence.

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The operations most affected in terms of the sheer number of incidents were Bokoni, a mothballed joint venture shared by Amplats and Atlatsa Resources, which recorded 122, and Impala Platinum’s (Implats) Marula mine, which had 102.

Bokoni suffered 68 roadblocks over the period while Marula was hit by 56. A spokesman for Impala said the local police and the companies shared such data among themselves which is updated on a regular basis.

In the 2016 financial year, Marula lost 10,000 ounces of almost 80,000 ounces of production.

The often violent disruptions of its operations had raised concerns about Marula’s viability last year.

A nearby community chrome project, which had triggered violent protests by locals who felt excluded from its revenue stream, was restarted earlier year, leading to a decline in community disruptions and a return to profit for the mine.

The least affected was Amplats’ Twickenham operation, which is now used for research and development. It only suffered one roadblock during the period and had no other incidents recorded.

Modikwa had 19 roadblocks and three acts of violence. The data was compiled before last week’s killings took place.

Much of the discontent stems from the stark juxtaposition of joblessness and grinding poverty atop some of the world’s richest platinum reserves. Amplats says the unemployment in the area, set amid rolling green hills, is close to 80 percent.

Local resident Tumi Shai, in his mid-20s, idly played a makeshift board game for gambling with dice fashioned from a piece of cardboard set on top of plastic crates. He has a high school diploma but no job.

“They could do more there’s lots of money here. These business people make millions. We just survive by gambling,” he told Reuters.

Editing by David Evans