South Africa on Friday announced a crackdown on growing mining unrest as militant protests forced a wave of crippling mine closures in the world’s top platinum producing country.
The government sounded the alarm on the economic fallout of the turmoil as leading platinum producer Aquarius Platinum and top ferrochrome company Xstrata Alloys each closed mines in the strife-hit Rustenburg region.
“Our government will not tolerate these acts any further,” South African Justice Minister Jeff Radebe told journalists.
The clampdown will target illegal gatherings and the carrying of weapons as thousands of miners, many armed with spears and machetes, mobilize at shuttered mines with fiery threats of violence and of further strike action.
The move was the government’s boldest since police shot dead 34 protesters last month at Lonmin’s crippled platinum mine.
Officers used stun grenades to disperse 1,500 protesters at Aquarius and arrested seven people shortly after the announcement.
The unrest has snowballed, with workers downing tools at other mines since Lonmin’s strike exploded into bloodshed.
The world’s No. 1 platinum producer, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), and the No. 3 company, Lonmin, have already ground to a halt in the mineral-rich region.
“This is not a state of emergency. We want to bring back public order in those affected areas so that the economy of our country can continue to run normally,” said Radebe, who said police would make arrests.
“So all those who are involved in illegal activities are going to be dealt with very swiftly, without any further delay,” he said.
The mining sector, the backbone of South Africa’s economy, directly employs about 500,000 people and accounts for nearly one-fifth of GDP when related activities are included.
It also brings in about half of the nation’s export earnings.
The labor strife has also spread to the gold sector, where 15,000 Gold Fields miners have been striking since Sunday last week.
The world’s leading ferrochrome producer, Xstrata Alloys, and the fourth-largest platinum producer, Aquarius, said the growing protests and tensions in the area had forced the temporary halt of operations.
South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan warned that the unrest, if unchecked, would hit already slowing economic growth and raise joblessness, while the violence would damage investor confidence.
“If this instability continues and the lack of production continues, firstly, the cost will be in terms of the overall growth numbers in South Africa,” he told reporters.
Hopes were dashed on Friday of a breakthrough at Lonmin — which has warned that an indefinite strike will put 40,000 jobs at risk — when workers rejected a wage offer by the London-listed firm as “an insult.”
“The workers rejected the offer,” representative Molisi Phele said of the 986 rand (US$120) pay increase put forward by the company.
The proposal was the first since the strike paralyzed its Marikana operations, where 45 people have been killed since last month.
At the end of a fresh round of talks on Friday, Lonmin had doubled its initial wage offer for rock drill operators, the group that led the strike, SAPA news agency said.
Worker turnout plunged to 0.31 percent on Friday, a record low since workers walked off the job on Aug. 10.
Welcoming the state’s efforts to restore calm, Lonmin said mediated talks would resume tomorrow.