The massacre at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine has huge implications for the country’s struggling platinum mining sector. Could it spread to the gold mines too?
LONDON (Mineweb) – Nearly 50 years ago when I worked there on the mines, Rustenburg in South Africa used to be a relatively sleepy small town some 160 km from Johannesburg where big city dwellers would repair for a quiet weekend at tourist resort Retief’s Kloof and farmers grew oranges, despite it being the site of Rustenburg Platinum Mines (then run by JCI) then and now still the world’s largest platinum mine.
Nowadays, with the expansion of the platinum sector, first with Impala and then with Lonrho (now Lonmin), Aquarius and others, the sleepy town has changed out of all recognition as the platinum mining industry expanded, and expanded. Anglo American, which was a major shareholder in JCI, effectively decimated the latter company and absorbed Rustenburg Platinum into Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) and the town became even more the centre of the world for platinum mining and for exploration on the Bushveld Complex Western limb, which accounts for most of South Africa’s platinum output.
Nowadays the orange groves have virtually all disappeared and it is doubtful if many tourists from Jo’burg would consider the relatively short drive to the Rustenburg town for a weekend’s relaxation – at least not in the town itself – although the surrounding area – particularly the Magaliesburg and the Bushveld – remains a most attractive destination.
But from now Rustenburg may also go down in history as the general location for the Marikana platinum mine (some 20 km away) massacre where an edgy police contingent opened fire on threatening, and armed, striking miners. Looking at this from 9,000 km away it seems that the miners themselves have been caught in a turf war between rival Unions with the new kid on the block agitating for enormous wage increases which the currently struggling platinum mines could not even contemplate.
At the heart of the problem appears to have been the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) which has been targeting the platinum mines to extend its membership at the expense of the established mining unions, the NUM and Solidarity which are nowadays seen by some as part of the mining establishment. As part of the turf war, the AMCU appears to have targeted the mine rock drill operators (RDOs) – a key part of the workforce, which reckons to have a specific grievance, and who are reported to be demanding a more than doubling of their wages.
The RDOs could be considered the elite of the mining workforce as without them there can be no production. The platinum mines, particularly those operating on the very narrow Merensky reef, are notoriously difficult to mechanise and thus employ large numbers of RDOs. There can be tribal influences at play here also, with the RDOs often drawn from specific tribal groups which can be played upon in the mine environment.
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