South Africa mine won’t fire absent workers

Updated 1:59 PM EDT, Tue August 21, 2012

Story highlights

Owner of South African mine says it won't fire workers who fail to show up

Lonmin had threated to discipline workers if they didn't report for duty

34 miners were shot last week, but the situation is now calm, company says

A memorial service is scheduled for Thursday

(CNN) —  

The owner of the South African mine where 34 people died in a clash with police said Tuesday that it will not discipline workers who fail to return this week, reversing an ultimatum to return to duty or face being fired.

The announcement came a day after a government committee looking into humanitarian aspects of the tragedy told company leaders that such threats were not “in the national interest.”

Meanwhile, South Africa’s minister of police told a special session of Parliament on Tuesday that authorities had done everything in their power to avoid last week’s fatal clash with miners.

“The events of Thursday, 16 August 2012, were not sudden eruption but a culmination of events that were building over months and months,” Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa said, according to a transcript issued by the government. “The South African Police Service is saddened by the events that unfolded on that fateful day. The police did all in their power to avert such a situation.”

Thursday’s violence stemmed from what government officials have referred to as a wildcat strike involving 3,000 rock drillers at Lonmin PLC’s platinum mine in Marikana.

The miners, who earn $300 to $500 a month, want their salaries raised to $1,500 a month. Lonmin, the world’s third-largest producer of platinum, rejected the increase and called the strike illegal.

The violence at the mine is thought to have been sparked by a rivalry between two unions that wield significant power and influence in South Africa. The unions, accused of trying to outdo each other in negotiating wages, denied instigating the clashes.

Thursday’s shootings came after negotiations between strikers and the company broke down and police decided to fence in machete-armed protesters with barbed wire, according to police Commissioner Riah Phiyega.

The protesters moved toward police and were driven back with tear gas and rubber bullets, Phiyega said.

Officers resorted to live ammunition when protesters attacked, Phiyega said.

Police gunfire killed 34 people and wounded 78.

Police also arrested 259 people on charges including malicious damage to property, armed robbery, illegal gathering and possession of weapons.

The violence followed a week of rising tensions. At least 10 people had died in the days preceding the shootings, including two police officers who were hacked to death.

The mine has reopened, and about a third of the 28,000 workers had reported for duty by Tuesday, according to Lonmin.

While most of the company’s work force and contractors are not on strike, many have been unable to return to work because of violence at the site, Lonmin said.

On Sunday, Lonmin issued a statement warning workers to return to work by Monday or face the possibility of losing their jobs.

While Tuesday’s announcement dropped the threat, the company said it was encouraging the nearly 19,000 workers who have yet to return to their jobs to do so. “The interests of employees, the wider economy and the company are best served by a return to work,” the company said.

“We are working alongside the unions as they also want their members to report for work,” the company said.

The situation Tuesday was calm, government and mine officials said. Police officials had described the mood Monday as “stable but tense.”

“Given the traumatic events of the last 10 days this is a delicate process and it will take time for people to come to terms with what has happened,” Lonmin said in its statement. “Nothing is being done to risk the continued calm on the ground. Safety and public order are the priorities of everyone involved in this process.”

A heavy police presence remains at the mine, the company said.

During Tuesday’s special parliamentary session, Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu told lawmakers the tragedy has thrown the country into turmoil similar to its struggles against apartheid decades ago.

“The tragic events at Lonmin’s Marikana mine that reverberated in every corner of our country shame us all. They drive us on to make amends, to review in utmost depth the happenings in our sector, to check any further outbreaks – indeed, to ensure that these things never, ever happen again,” she said.

“The events should refocus the collective might of our nation on answers not recriminations, on rationality not rhetoric. We should refuse to be cowed into a state of mind where we accept the notion – popular in certain circles abroad – that we are nothing but a country at war with itself,” Shabangu said.

A memorial service has been scheduled for Thursday at the spot where miners and police clashed, the state-run South African Government News Agency reported Tuesday.

“We felt the memorial service should be held there as part of cleansing the place,” the agency quoted Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Richard Baloyi as saying. “The tragedy that happened is not easy for the people of Marikana and the country as a whole.”