, RUSTENBURG, South Africa, Oct 27 – South African police fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas on Saturday to break up a protest by striking miners who accuse the country’s main union body of betraying worker interests during weeks of unrest in the vital sector.
Bullet casings littered the ground and a helicopter circled above, with police sirens howling, as the protesters were chased into the area surrounding a stadium in northwestern Rustenburg in the unrest-hit platinum belt.
The violence erupted as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the country’s largest labour umbrella, marched to the stadium for a rally in a bid to regain its authority, which has been dealt a heavy blow since the mining unrest began in August.
The strikers are unhappy with the way the National Union of Mineworkers, Cosatu’s biggest affiliate, has been representing their interests during the often deadly wildcat strikes.
“They take their own decisions by themselves, they don’t consult with the workers. And they are there to represent us, the workers,” said Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) worker miner Simon Mothlabi.
“They’ve been earning a lot of money, like management, and us workers, we are just earning peanuts.”
The Cosatu grouping is a key ally of the ruling African National Congress and some of its former leaders now hold key positions in business and government.
It accuses organisers of the wildcat strikes, which saw police gun down 34 people in August, of having a political agenda and causing mass job dismissals.
“We are cleaning their mess all the time. Almost 30,000 workers have been dismissed. This rally is about unifying every worker in South Africa,” general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told around 1,500 people after the rally finally got underway.
“We need a strong united federation for all workers in the mining industry,” said Vavi.
Saturday’s unrest erupted after police cleared around 300 people from the Rustenburg stadium and blocked the entrance with armoured vans after Cosatu and union T-shirts were set alight.
An AFP photographer saw a man who was dressed in the labour grouping’s trademark red bleeding after he had been beaten up. A reporter on the scene saw eight people being bundled into a police van after the crackdown.
The clashes came a day after the NUM announced that it had reached a deal with Amplats, the world’s number one platinum producer, to rehire 12,000 fired workers after six weeks of strikes at its mines.
The global miner on Saturday said it has given workers until Tuesday to return and will offer a 2,000 rand ($179 or 231 euros) allowance if they do so.
But striking workers said they were not aware of the deal, which would signal a further winding down the strikes that have rocked platinum and gold mines.
“We know nothing about it. We were not consulted, we only heard about it on the radio,” said Amplats worker Reuben Lerebolo, carrying a poster stating “NUM we are tired of you”.
“We can’t go to work until our demands are met,” he said.
The moves to end the strike at Amplats comes as a strike in the gold mining sector also neared an end following a pay agreement between unions and mine operators.
However, Amplats CEO Chris Griffith said the agreement “does not mean that we have abandoned our current wage agreement or recognised negotiation structures and processes”.
The unrest has cost 10.1 billion rand ($1.2 billion, 912 million euros) in lost production since the beginning of the year, pushing the country’s yearly growth forecast downward to 2.5 percent.
The industry contributes up to nearly one fifth of GDP when related activities are included.
The strikes flared out of a deadly stand-off at Lonmin’s Marikana mine where police gunned down 34 people after 10 had died in clashes blamed on union rivalry.