Labor Unrest In S. African Mines Spreads

In South Africa, thousands of mineworkers have embarked on industrial action that began with a deadly pay strike by platinum workers. They've agreed a wage deal with their management, this week, but the labor unrest is spreading to other platinum and gold mines in an industry that's the engine of South Africa's economy. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton discusses the repercussions with host Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Almost two months of violent strikes in South Africa's mining industry have killed more than 40 people there. The strife has now eased a little but more labor unrest is percolating. Since 34 striking platinum miners were shot dead by the police last month, South Africa has witnessed what many feared resembled apartheid-era repression. Deals have been brokered between some mining companies and thousands of mineworkers, but others are now agitating for better pay and conditions. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us from Johannesburg. Ofeibea, thanks for being with us.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

SIMON: And help us understand how these upheavals over the past six weeks in the mining sector in South Africa have really staggered the nation.

QUIST-ARCTON: Scott, you get many South Africans who are saying that they are shocked by what has happened in the mining industry over the past six or so weeks, but many others who said we had our eyes open. We should have seen it coming. You have this country where a tiny minority has grown very, very rich but the mass of South Africans, especially poor black South Africans working in this migrant industry, the mining sector where they have to travel from their homes in the countryside, from neighboring countries like Lesotho and Mozambique who are producing the country's wealth in the platinum mines, in the gold mines. South African produces 85 percent of the world's platinum and huge amounts of global gold. But that these rock drill operators are getting pitiful pay. So, when this crisis blew up in the middle of August, everybody stopped short. Their breath was collectively caught and they said, no, this can't be happening in South Africa 20 years after the end of white minority rule.

SIMON: Well, though, Ofeibea, what does this say about South Africa almost 20 years after the end of apartheid? The country doesn't resemble what the hopes of its founders had?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, this is what many people are asking. And in many ways, the miners of those who represent and symbolize ordinary South Africans, they are the ones who go two, three, four, five miles underground to extract the precious metals that make this country the leading economy in Africa, yet they feel that the delivery of services, homes, good pay, water resources, all those essentials that they were promised at the end of apartheid have not come to pass. But on the other side, Scott, you have many saying that violence strikes, miners picking up clubs, spears, sticks, all sorts to march and (unintelligible) stamp and their feet and say we want more money, but not going through the official union bargaining system has opened the floodgates to more upheaval and more disturbances. That's what the main mine union is saying, but the miners are saying, well, you don't represent us anymore. You're too cozy with the government. You're too cozy with industry. So, we will represent ourselves. We want a living, decent wage. We want a life that we can call a dignified life, which we don't need at the moment.

SIMON: What are some of the implications for this as South Africa goes on, which, as you note, the biggest economy in Africa?

QUIST-ARCTON: Economically, it's been a real blow. Now, platinum used to get huge prices on the world market. Scott, now that has gone down and platinum is not worth as much as gold. And yet it used to be the other way around. So, you have the mining companies saying, look, we can't afford to put up wages at the moment. We have to watch the markets and see how things are going. Politically, this has been a mighty strike at the governing African National Congress. Because you have President Jacob Zuma and the top; people pointing fingers at him and saying, look, your ANC that fought for the end of apartheid, that fought for freedom and an inverted commerce independence promised us a decent and dignified life, but you have failed us. But you are all driving around in flashy cars, living in huge houses, living the lives of princes while most South Africans are still living in poverty. You have failed.

SIMON: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton from Johannesburg. Thanks very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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