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Thousands of angry miners protest at S Africa mine

Wednesday, August 15, 2012    

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MARIKANA, South Africa (AP) — Police and military helicopters buzzed over a shuttered South African platinum mine yesterday as thousands of angry miners shouted and raised their fists over poor pay and conditions.

Nearby, children walked past the dead body of a middle-aged man in sight of the processing plant at the Lonmin PLC mine. The unrest, exacerbated by duelling labour unions, has killed at least 10 people in the latest discontent gripping South Africa's mining industry.

Barnard O Mokwena, an executive vice-president for Lonmin, said the company continued to meet with the police regarding the violence. Yesterday, operations appeared at a standstill at a facility that represents 96 per cent of all production for the world's third largest platinum producer.

Workers unfurled razor wire to wrap around fencing at a facility within sight where angry workers met. Police in heavy armoured trucks drove through the shacks, hostels and simple homes of the workers here. They did not stop.

The unrest began Friday when about 3,000 workers launched what managers called an illegal strike.

Frans Baleni, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers blamed the violence on upstart union Association of Mineworkers and Construction.

Baleni described the unrest as "a simple criminal action" and said that its union rival preyed on "highly embedded" workers at the mine.

"These people are taking advantage of the common social challenges of people in this area," the union leader said. "There's a high level of unemployment as we know; secondly, workers are highly indebted, so it's easy to go to workers and say that if you belong to us, we will get you" more money.

Attempts to reach members of the rival union were unsuccessful yesterday as some miners threatened journalists and beat on their cars with sticks, machetes and pipes. No journalists were harmed.

Police captain Dennis Adrio said police units would remain at the mine for as long as necessary. Adrio declined to discuss specifics regarding the police's plans, though it appeared late yesterday afternoon that officers would largely stay away from the communities and watch from a distance. Adrio said officers were aware of the dead body near where the miners had gathered yesterday and that they would attempt to recover it.

"Our objective is to civilise the situation on the ground," the captain said. "The second objective is to find who killed our two officers and those who killed the other dead."

Mining gave birth to modern South Africa, as companies rushed to areas around Johannesburg and elsewhere looking for gold and other precious metals. Today South Africa remains one of the world's dominant producers of platinum, gold and coal, but its workers still face abysmal salaries and living conditions.

A report released yesterday by the Bench Marks Foundation, a non-governmental organisation monitoring the practices of multi-national mining corporations, found workers for the mine often live in deteriorating shacks without electricity. Some children suffer from chronic illnesses due to sewage spills caused by broken drainage, the report said.

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