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SAfrican govt, striking miners harden stance

Friday, September 14, 2012 | 7:51 AM    

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) — South Africa's government and striking miners hardened their stances Friday, with platinum miners rejecting a wage increase offer far below their demand and President Jacob Zuma's government vowing to disperse what it says are illegal protests and to disarm strikers.

Forty-five people already have been killed in a strike at a Lonmin PLC mine, including 34 miners killed by police on August 16 in shootings that shocked the nation. The labour unrest has stopped work at four mines of the world's largest platinum producers and the fourth-largest gold mining company. Strikers are calling on co-workers to shut down mines across the country, raising fears for the future of South Africa's biggest industry.

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said the government must intervene because the mining industry is central to the economy of Africa's richest nation.

"The government will no longer tolerate illegal gatherings and brandishing of weapons in this way," Radebe told a news conference.

"The South African government has noted and is deeply concerned by the amount of violence, threats and intimidation that is currently taking place in our country," he said. "These acts of violence and intimidation clearly undermine our government's efforts of ensuring economic and security stability."

Radebe refused to say whether police will be allowed to use live ammunition, as they did on August 16.

"The police are well acquainted with how to enforce public order in South Africa," Radebe said.

Monday morning, the strikers turned down Lonmin's offer of a 900 rand (US$112.50) increase that would give new-entry workers a basic monthly salary of 5,500 rand (US$688), their leaders said. Lonmin is the number three platinum-producer in the world.

"Lonmin can just shut down its mine if it doesn't want to give us what we want!" one defiant striker shouted.

Strikers complained that Thursday night's offer, the first presented by London-registered Lonmin PLC since workers shut down the world's third-largest platinum mine on August 10, falls far below their demands for a minimum salary of 12,500 rand (US$1,560).

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said the strikes are "extremely damaging" to the economy.

"It undermines confidence in the South African economy and, if we undermine confidence, we undermine investment," he told the news conference addressed by the justice minister. "It's going to be extremely damaging to our economy in more ways than we understand at the moment."

The strike spread this week to the world's largest platinum mine, Anglo American Platinum, and has also stopped work at a Gold Fields mine.

Police said they have identified the latest body found this week near Lonmin as that of a shop steward of the National Union of Mineworkers, which is allied with the governing African National Congress. Six other NUM stewards have been killed at Lonmin.

The strikes are rooted in rivalry between NUM and a breakaway union, with many miners accusing the dominant union of cozying up to management and being more interested in the union's business interests and politics than shop-floor needs of its members.

Zuma's statement that dominant unions and political parties have more rights than minorities led many South Africans to question his understanding of minority rights enshrined in the constitution.

Answering legislators' questions in Parliament on Thursday, Zuma defended the initial decision to exclude from negotiations the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, whose supporters started the strike along with workers who do not want to be represented by any union.

"You have more rights because you're a majority; you have less rights because you're a minority. That's how democracy works," Zuma said, provoking a huge outcry from opposition legislators, and discussions on talk radio shows. Callers questioned the president's understanding of democracy.

The prolonged and spreading strike and police killings have thrown a spotlight on government and union failures to meet promises to lift South Africans out of poverty and address massive shortages of jobs and housing.

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