South Africa mine: Lonmin drops threat to fire workers

Striking platinum miners gather on 20 August 2012 at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine Workers at the mine are mourning the death of colleagues

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Mining giant Lonmin has dropped its threat to fire workers who failed to return to work at a South African mine after deadly clashes last week.

The decision came after the South African government appealed to the firm to withdraw the ultimatum for workers at the Marikana mine.

Last week, police shot dead 34 strikers at the mine.

The country's parliament has held a special debate on the killings, amidst a national outcry.

President Jacob Zuma had already declared a week of national mourning and promised to appoint a commission of inquiry into the shooting.

Sue Vey, Lonmin: "It's not a case of backing down"

During the parliamentary debate, opposition Congress of the People (Cope) leader Mosiuoa Lekota said the shootings had left indelible scars that would not heal quickly.

"The tragedy was preventable, if only proactive and even-handed measures had been implemented by all parties," he said.

Mines Minister Susan Shabangu said companies should do more to improve the lives of workers.

"It surely cannot be correct that mining communities such as those of Marikana and other mining areas should see prosperity and conspicuous consumption by companies and mine bosses whilst they continue to experience poverty," she said, AFP news agency reports.

'Calming emotions'

On Tuesday morning, Mark Munroe, Lonmin's executive vice president, said the company had suspended plans to fire thousands of workers.

Analysis

Mining has made South Africa the biggest economy on the African continent. But for many black South Africans the industry is a symbol of inequality and a legacy of the old system of racial segregation, or apartheid.

Most of the poorly paid miners are black and live in squalid housing. They see their richer compatriots - both black and white - enjoying a luxurious lifestyle they can only dream of.

The World Bank describes South Africa as one of the most unequal countries in the world and some say inequality has actually increased since the end of white rule in 1994.

That is why the populist South African politician, Julius Malema, drew applause from miners when he described the situation at the Marikana mine as a fight between capitalists and exploited workers. And it is why, beyond the tragic deaths, Marikana matters in South African politics.

"I don't think it's going to contribute to a more stable environment if Lonmin goes out and puts deadlines and ultimatums and says we will fire everyone if no-one comes to work," he said.

A minister in Mr Zuma's office, Collins Chabane, said Lonmin had agreed to suspend its ultimatum in talks with the government.

"I think we need to try to temper the flare-up of emotions on all sides and try to find a reasonable solution to address the problems," he said on local radio, AFP news agency reports.

Lonmin said 33% of its 28,000-strong workforce showed up for work on Tuesday, the South African Press Association reports.

About 3,000 rock-drill operators walked out more than a week ago in support of demands for higher pay.

The strike was declared illegal by Lonmin, the world's third-largest platinum producer, and the mine was shut.

Clashes between strikers, some holding clubs and machetes, and police culminated on Thursday when officers armed with automatic rifles and pistols fired dozens of shots.

The miners, who are currently earning between 4,000 and 5,000 rand ($484-$605) a month, say they want their salary increased to 12,500 rand ($1,512).

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