NBC News, August 13, 2012
Nine people including two policemen have been killed in clashes between labor unions at a South African mine operated by the world’s third biggest platinum producer Lonmin, by far the deadliest spate of violence in a turf war rocking the sector.
Lonmin said the situation was “volatile” at its Western Platinum mine, 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg. The plant was operating at reduced capacity and was under heavy police guard.
Police told Reuters two policemen died after a machete attack by a mob near the mine. Another officer was badly injured and police in turn shot dead three protestors.
“We came under attack. The suspects took our weapons. A shootout ensued and during that incident three suspects were fatally injured,” spokesman Lindela Mashigo told Reuters.
According to the BBC, police spokesman Brigadier Thulani Ngubane said the rioters were deploying “guerrilla tactics,” rapidly forming 5,000-strong groups of attackers before dispersing.
The clashes involve a struggle for membership between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
At least three people were killed in a similar round of violence in January that led to a six-week closure of the world’s largest platinum mine, run by Impala Platinum.
The whole platinum sector is grappling with declining world prices for the precious metal and a surge in union militancy in South Africa, home to 80 percent of known reserves.
Aquarius Platinum briefly shut one of its shafts this month after an attack by unidentified assailants that left three dead and at least 20 injured.
The trouble began on Friday with an illegal strike by 3,000 rock drill operators at Western Platinum mine, echoing previous incidents when AMCU has tried to recruit NUM members.
January’s stoppage at Implats also started with an illegal strike by rock drillers.
NUM and Lonmin officials told Reuters workers who wanted to report for duty were being intimidated. AMCU has faced the same allegations elsewhere but has always denied them.
Trade union Solidarity, which mostly represents skilled white workers, said three of its members had been assaulted and severely injured when they tried to report for duty.
The challenge to the dominance of the 300,000-strong NUM also has political ramifications given its role as a key support base for the ruling African National Congress.