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After shootings, South Africa warns mines to do more for workers

September 3, 2012 |  9:49 am

This post has been updated. See the note below.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The mineral resources minister of South Africa warned mining companies on Monday they would face "consequences" if they fail to do more to improve workers' lives after 34 striking platinum miners protesting for higher pay were slain last month by police.

Susan Shabangu blamed mining companies for dragging their feet in providing decent lives for their workers. The minister told a news conference in Johannesburg that most mine managers in South Africa were white and male, a sign of the industry's failure to include other racial groups and women in its leadership.

She warned that it wasn't the job of government to provide services such as housing for miners, and attacked companies for failing to do enough to improve workers' lives.

"Mining companies are not coming to the party as per their responsibilities," Shabangu said, adding that legislation on mining companies' obligations "is clear. If companies don't comply, there will be consequences. ... It will lead to fines. It will lead to closures of companies that do not comply."

President Jacob Zuma and the ruling African National Congress government are under intense pressure over their handling of the killings at Lonmin's Marikana mine. Zuma faces an important leadership vote in December.

With the president under fire from rivals such as expelled ANC youth leader Julius Malema, and the government looking weak and confused after the shootings at Marikana, the government made an effort Monday to regain the initiative by calling the news conference at which five government ministers addressed foreign media.

Collins Chabane, minister in the office of the president, told the gathering that the violence at the Marikana mine, about 40 miles northwest of Johannesburg, would not derail foreign investment in South Africa.

[Updated Sept. 3, 10:08 a.m.: Despite the government’s efforts to calm investor fears, there was more violence Monday when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesting gold mine workers. Four people were injured, according to news service reports.

The clash at the facility, owned by Gold Fields International, underscored the complicated political situation at some South African mines. The operation was formerly owned by a black empowerment company involving a grandson of the country's first black president, Nelson Mandela, and a nephew of Zuma.]

The trouble last month at Lonmin came after an illegal strike for higher pay. Ten people were killed in the week leading up to the police shootings, including two policemen and several shop stewards from the National Union of Mineworkers, allied to the government.

On Aug. 16, police opened fire while trying to disperse the miners, who were armed with machetes, spears, clubs and several hand guns. Dozens of people also were injured in the shootings, which focused national attention on inequalities that persist after 18 years of ANC rule, shoddy living conditions and pay for miners, and poor policing.

Since the Lonmin shootings, wildcat strikes have hit other mines, including the gold sector, raising investor fears about instability and violence in the key South African industry.

On Monday, Chabane tried to reassure wary foreigners that South Africa remained a good place to invest despite its reputation for labor unrest.

"The tragic incident at Marikana is not a reflection of the business environment in South Africa. We would like to reassure all stakeholders and the international community that mining operations continue unhindered in other parts of the North West province and throughout the country," he said.

"Government remains in control of the situation and law and order continues to prevail."

Chabane didn't comment on reports that have surfaced that miners were hunted down and shot at close range by police, but urged anyone with evidence of wrongdoing to supply it to a judicial commission set up by Zuma to probe the shootings.

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe last week criticized a decision by the prosecuting authorities to charge 270 arrested miners with murder over the 34 deaths. After a national furor over the charges, the National Prosecuting Authority on Sunday announced it was dropping the charges.


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--Robyn Dixon

Photo: Striking miners parade at the entrance to a gold mine near Johannesburg, South Africa, on Monday. European Pressphoto Agency