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S. Africa Mine Dispute Surfaces Other Issues


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Mine workers in South Africa face a deadline tomorrow to return to work following a deadly dispute over pay and conditions. Violence erupted last month at the world's third-largest platinum mine. Thirty-four miners were shot dead in a confrontation with police. Striking miners are refusing to go back to work until their demands are met. And there are concerns about labor unrest, which has spread to other parts of the country's lucrative mining industry.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us from Johannesburg. Ofeibea, welcome.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings. Greetings from Joburg.

WERTHEIMER: So, Ofeibea, what led to this crisis?

QUIST-ARCTON: The main thing that the mineworkers at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg, are saying is that they cannot afford to live on the pay that they have been getting, that they need a living wage. And they want about $1,560 a month. That is twice their take-home pay at the moment. So they downed tools. They said they were not going to work. And then there was this confrontation with the police on the 16th of August when their colleagues were killed. A couple of days earlier, two policemen and eight other people had been killed.

Nobody had expected it to happen in this way. It has really sent shock waves across South Africa. But the miners are sticking with their demands. They say they will not go back to work despite the fact that there are talks between other mine unions, the employers and the government, as well as religious leaders.

WERTHEIMER: Ofeibea, you've visited this mine. What is the situation, as we speak?

QUIST-ARCTON: Really tense. Really tense because the striking miners say that other mineworkers should not go back to the shaft, and that they will stop them going back and any employers. So that's what I witnessed Wednesday, when I was there during a march of what started with hundreds of striking mineworkers, but ended up with about 3,000. And then there was a tense encounter between the striking miners and the managers at one shaft, speaking in the local mining language here, known as Fanagalo, and that ended with absolutely no resolution.

But it was - Linda, it was awful. It was like the old days of apartheid. The miners were on their knees, black mineworkers, talking to white managers across a razor wire fence. And one of the religious leaders who went with the miners said, you know, what would have taken for them to take them into their office, sit down with a cup of coffee and biscuits, and discuss the problems. That did not happen.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there are those who say the troubles at this platinum mine are symbolic of deeper troubles in South Africa. Apartheid has been over almost 20 years. What does the dispute tell us about the state of the country?

QUIST-ARCTON: That although the people who fought against apartheid and white minority rule were fighting for equality and opportunities for all South Africans regardless of their color, that only an elite, a minority, has been getting rich in these past two decades while the masses remain poor and feel that they have no chance of a better life. So the miners are very representative of many South Africans who say, we fought for equality, for freedom, but look where we are 20 years down the line. Something has got to change.

So there's a lot of politics in this as well, Linda. And there are politicians on all sides who are trying to gain political capital out of this miner strike. But ultimately, what you have most people saying is, look, these people need to be able to feed their families, put food on the table, send their children to school, and live a decent life. And that is what we should be looking at.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, she's reporting from Johannesburg. Ofeibea, thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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