Striking workers paralyzed a gold mine in South Africa Monday, fuelling fears that mounting discontent could spread to the entire mining sector and grip the continent’s economic powerhouse for months.
Demanding the removal of their local union leadership and asking for tax-free bonuses, 15,000 Gold Fields Ltd. workers downed tools at its KDC mine west of Johannesburg.
The stoppage, coming exactly a month after a deadly strike was launched at Lonmin PLC’s Marikana platinum mine that left 44 dead, is the latest to hit South Africa’s vital mining sector.
Mining accounts for a fifth of GDP but the sector – which has become a symbol of the huge economic and social discrepancies that continue to plague post-apartheid South Africa – is also a major political battleground.
The Gold Fields strike started off when the night shift did not report for duty on Sunday.
“They are demanding the removal of NUM branch leadership,” Gold Fields spokesman Sven Lunsche told AFP, referring to the National Union of Mineworkers, a large union allied to the ruling ANC party.
Placards the workers carried called for 12,500 rand, echoing the Lonmin strikers demands.
Mr. Lunsche said the company had secured a court order to end the illegal strike.
Meanwhile, the strike at Lonmin clocked one month on Monday as some 10,000 stick-wielding platinum miners marched and chanted songs against President Jacob Zuma.
Just slightly over six per cent of the workers turned up for the job on Monday as strikers muscled into mine shafts to force them to shut.
Michael Kahabo, a striker, said they want all work at the mine to shut down. “It’s a small percentage but they must stop working, to join the strike.”
“As for me, I can’t go back to work without 12.500 rand [pay],” a 52-year-old load operator Sello Ntsibane, said.
Wage talks due to start on Monday had to be adjourned as mediators waited for non-unionised workers’ representatives to show up, said Lonmin spokeswoman Sue Vey.
One leader reached by phone said they would not attend the talks until there was a guarantee that demands for a threefold increase in pay would be discussed.
They also refused to sign a peace deal last Thursday when Lonmin management and most unions agreed to restore calm.
“If they say we are going to talk about money, yes we will go. But if it’s this peace accord, we don’t have anything to do with the peace agreement because we don’t benefit from it,” Molisi Phele said.
The wildcat strike has already left 44 people dead, 34 of them shot by police in a crackdown days after clashes between workers killed 10.
The strike at Gold Fields was the second in two weeks at the world’s fourth gold producer.
“Employees of the west section of the KDC Gold Mine … on the West Rand in South Africa have been engaging in an unlawful and unprotected strike since the start of the night shift” Sunday evening, Gold Fields said in a statement.
A strike by 12,000 mine workers at KDC’s east section near Johannesburg ended on September 5 after a seven-day stayaway. The workers had also demanded a change in leadership at their local NUM branch.
Another platinum mine Implats reported that a workers committee linked to a union rival to NUM, has forwarded a demand for a 10 per cent pay rise.
Experts say the growing labour disputes appear linked to political developments in the country as the ruling ANC gears up for its crucial elective conference by year’s end.
The party will pick the person who will run, and most likely win, the 2014 presidential election.
“It’s almost become contagious,” said Crispen Chinguno of the sociology department at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“Although workers have genuine labour grievances, it’s gone well beyond labour unrest.
“Some politicians are hijacking the disgruntlement among the workers because the mining sector is at the core of the political, social and economic order in South Africa,” he said.
Julius Malema, a former youth leader expelled from the ANC for ill discipline, has in recent weeks been inciting mine workers to make mines ungovernable and dump unions in wage negotiations.
”Leaders of the NUM should know that you can’t act for workers without consulting them, and don’t take workers for granted,“ Mr. Malema told Gold Fields strikers last week.
“If they fail you, you must lead yourself.”