Striking SAfrican miners find strength in numbers

CARLETONVILLE, South Africa -- Carrying a piece of paper threatening him with eviction from a workers' hostel, Robert Asanda pointed to thousands of fellow striking miners who had gathered atop a hill in a symbolic act of defiance against their gold-mining employers in South Africa.

"I am not alone," he said. "I feel better because all these people are here with me and supporting us."

As pressure builds on miners to end strikes that are slowly paralyzing South Africa's critically important mining industry, they are finding strength in numbers, in rousing speeches of union leaders and a fiery outcast from the ruling party, even in a sense of righteousness that recalls the old struggle against apartheid. Above all, they are inspired by the story of Marikana, where last month platinum miners got a pay raise of up to 22 percent in an agreement that settled an illegal strike whose level of violence shocked the nation.

At the Gold Fields KDC West mine in Carletonville, thousands of miners on strike since last month now face eviction from their hostels, the kind of action that might throw their lives into unprecedented turmoil. Many who spoke to The Associated Press said they would have nowhere to go in the event of eviction but that they had gathered so much steam that the only thing that could silence them now is a capitulation to their demand: a monthly wage of 12,500 rand ($1,500), three times what most of them currently get.

A striking miner who gave his name as X. Fasie said Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon whose election as president in 1994 spelled the collapse of white rule, would have paid attention to the concerns of miners. But Fasie felt current President Jacob Zuma lacked concern for their welfare, a sentiment shared by many miners.

Many miners are bitter that the gold and platinum they dig up enriches others while they barely get by, often living in settlements with no running water or electricity. Some miners in Carletonville seemed angry and on the edge of violence, brandishing sticks, glowering toward passing motorists, even asking aloud whether they had become "dogs" in their own country.

The current unrest in the mining industry caught fire in August when platinum miners at Lonmin's Marikana operations northwest of Johannesburg staged a wildcat strike that led to police killing 34 miners on Aug. 16 and wounding more than 70 others in a blaze of gunfire as officers tried to disperse strikers, many of whom were armed with machetes and spears. The Marikana incident is now the subject of an official inquiry.

About 80,000 miners, or 16 percent of the total mining workforce, are striking across South Africa, according to Lesiba Seshoka of the National Union of Mineworkers. In the weeks since the Marikana strike was resolved, unrest has affected several gold and platinum mines and weakened South Africa's image as an investment destination. The strikes have hit AngloGold Ashanti, a top gold producer in South Africa, and Anglo American Platinum, whose operations have been brought to a standstill by the strike, is the world's largest producer of platinum. The labor unrest has even spread to the nation's truckers.

Willie Jacobsz, a senior vice president at Gold Fields, said the company gave miners a pay raise of up to 10 percent in July and that responding to their "illegal" demands" now would send the wrong message.

"We are not negotiating with the strikers," he said, "because we do not reward unlawful striking."

Jacobsz said the miners were up for eviction because they had turned their hostels into factories for making weapons such as petrol bombs.

Like Gold Fields, AngloGold Ashanti's Vaal River operations have been badly hit by a strike over wages, with more than 20,000 workers there getting the support of influential trade unions in demanding a monthly salary of 16,000 rand ($1,900). In the town of Orkney, hundreds of miners marched Wednesday to the nearest offices of AngloGold Ashanti, chanting "Amandla," a Zulu slogan denoting people power that was used in the long anti-apartheid struggle, while some pumped their fists into the air.

"Down with monkey salaries, down," said Buti Manamela, the president of the Young Communist League. "Divided we fall, united we stand. ... We can never achieve Nelson Mandela's rainbow nation if we are unequal in terms of wages."

For the miners, the idea that unity might bring a measure of success in wage demands, as happened in Marikana, is motivating those who otherwise would have given up by now. Many face the prospect of hunger if the strike is unresolved, and without a regular salary they will be unable to pay rent for their lodgings. But they feel that their demands have a better chance of getting met in the immediate aftermath of the Marikana incident.

This week the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU, and the National Union of Mineworkers said in a joint statement that the Marikana deal, however good, set a bad precedent by undermining what they called "collective bargaining."

COSATU and NUM have seen their authority eroded by the uncontrolled spread of illegal strikes. An Anglican priest helped negotiate the Marikana deal and many miners bypassed unions by selecting their own representatives to deal with management.

"Lonmin should have known that getting wage negotiations to be facilitated by the churches and allowing everybody, no matter their legal status, to play a role in the negotiations will create precedents that they will not be willing to repeat anywhere else," said the statement from COSATU and NUM.

Bishop Joe Seoka, the Anglican priest mediated the Marikana deal, told The Associated Press Thursday that threatening strikers with eviction "is not the way to go." Even though the fact that some miners are carrying out copy-cat strikes of the Marikana unrest is now a problem, with trust and mutual respect the Marikana agreement can be replicated at other mines where workers are on strike, the cleric said, adding that striking miners are often angry "because they have been let down by so many people."

"The first thing to do in this situation is to try and calm people down," he said.

For striking gold miners in Orkney, Marikana looms large and remains a source of inspiration.

J.R. Sefudi, who works at AngloGold Ashanti, vowed: "We are not going back on this."