Police Fire Tear Gas, Rubber Bullets to Evict Strikers
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Police on Thursday fired tear gas and rubber bullets to evict about 300 striking workers staging a sit-in at a gold dump reclamation facility, police and company officials said.
The eviction was one of the toughest police actions since the National Union of Mineworkers launched South Africa’s largest ever legal strike on Sunday.
Police also arrested 23 strikers at Anglo American Corp.’s ERGO plant, east of Johannesburg, said police spokesman H.C. Lourens. He said one striker was slightly injured.
Strikers at the ERGO plant had voted to join the black mineworkers’ strike on Wednesday. At the sit-in Thursday they said they planned to remain at the facility, which has no sleeping quarters, for up to two weeks.
Anglo American said the strikers sabotaged machinery and released five tons of sulphuric acid. The company obtained a court eviction order Thursday.
The union had no immediate comment on the incident. No other details were immediately available.
Earlier Thursday, the union disputed a claim by mine owners that the strike was weakening, saying 10,000 additional workers have joined the walkout.
Union general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa told a news conference the walkouts took place over the past two days at 10 gold, coal and antimony mines and processing plants.
Ramaphosa declined to say how many workers were now on strike, but the union earlier put the figure at 342,000.
Meanwhile, the Chamber of Mines, which represents the six major mining houses, said Thursday the number of strikers had dropped from about 230,000 to less than 200,000.
The independent Labor Monitoring Group estimated the number of strikers at 281,000.
Ramaphosa said several hundred workers at Anglovaal Ltd.’s Lorraine gold mine had returned to work at the union’s urging. He said the strike there was ″only partial.″ Anglovaal had threatened strikers with dismissal if they did not return to work Thursday.
But, Ramaphosa added, ″we have not received any reports that workers have returned except at the Lorraine mine ... and we don’t plan on sending anybody else back.″
The strike has focused on the union’s demand for a 30 percent wage increase and it has become increasingly bitter.
Nineteen people were injured Wednesday night in clashes between strikers and mine security officers. The union also said 177 of its members have been arrested, including 78 accused of plotting to kill strikebreakers.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said Thursday the United States hopes for a peaceful resolution of the strike. He said if the arrest reports were were true, ″this would call into question the South African authorities’ professed impartiality in this miners’ strike.″
″The growth of the South African labor union movement in the last several years has been one of the most positive developments in South Africa,″ he added.
In other developments:
-Rand Mines said Thursday it fired 74 striking miners at its Harmony gold mine after they ″broke the (underground) telephone communication system, damaged a variety of mine equipment and both chased and roughed up other workers.″
Rand Mines had threatened to dismiss strikers who did not return to work Thursday at the Harmony mine, the union said Wednesday. But the company said the workers were fired for breaking mine and statutory regulations, not because they were on strike.
-Police reported the arrest of five strikers at the Blinkpan colliery in connection with the strangling death Tuesday of a black worker who had defied the strike call.
-The Chamber of Mines said about 150 union members had gone on strike Thursday morning at the Rand Refinery, the main processor of the country’s export gold. It said 210 workers remained on the job and the refinery would continue functioning.
-Anglo American said it planned to permanently close one gold and one coal mine, with the loss of 2,700 jobs, unless strikers returned to work by Monday. The company said the Western Holdings gold mine has been operating at a loss for several months. The firm gave no reason for its intentions to shut down its Landau coal mine.
In addition to the wage hike, union demands include increases in annual leave, more death benefits and recognition of the anniversary of the Soweto riots, June 16, as a paid holiday.
The Chamber of Mines on July 1 unilaterally implemented pay raises ranging from 15 to 23.4 percent.
The chamber said the average black miner’s salary was about 500 rand ($250) a month before the increases brought them to 571 for gold miners ($285) and 600 ($300) for coal miners ($290). That is about one-fifth what the average white miner earns.
The union says the average black miner earned 340 rand ($170) before the wage increases.
Black miners do most of the underground work, except blasting. White miners do most of the supervisory and special jobs.