MARIKANA, South Africa (Reuters) - About a third of the workforce returned on Monday to South Africa’s Marikana platinum mine, resuming operations at the site where police shot dead 34 striking miners in clashes that evoked memories of apartheid-era violence.
Mine owner Lonmin has threatened about 3,000 striking workers with dismissal if they do not show up at Marikana, 100 kilometres (60 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, where miners armed with spears, machetes and handguns died on Thursday in a hail of police fire.
Ten people were also killed prior to the police shooting, including a shop steward from the country’s biggest union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who was hacked to death, as a dispute between mining unions turned deadly.
Striking workers gathered on Monday near the garbage-strewn fields and the barren hill where they assembled a week ago, with many saying they were not ready to go back into the shafts.
“You work so very hard for very little pay. It is almost like death,” said a striking miner who asked to be identified only by his first name, Thulani.
Lonmin said it did not yet have enough workers at their posts to produce ore, and officials from the small Solidarity union of highly skilled workers said at least 80 percent of the workforce is needed to bring platinum out of the shafts.
The violence was sparked by a spreading battle for membership between the NUM and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which has accused its rival of caring more about politics and personal enrichment than workers.
Lonmin said in a statement that operations had resumed and it had extended to Tuesday from Monday its deadline for the strikers at the mine, which employs 28,000, to return to work.
A spokesman for President Jacob Zuma, who has declared a week of mourning, said a ministerial committee appointed by the president had arrived on the scene to assist families and the community affected by the troubles.
More than 250 people began appearing in court near the mine to face charges including murder, attempted murder and assault related to the deadliest security incident since the end of apartheid in 1994.
About 100 women appeared outside court to appeal for leniency for the men inside who are often the sole breadwinners for extended families trying to make ends meet on their meagre mining salaries.
NUM has said its feud with the militant AMCU union, seen as behind the Lonmin strike, could spread, threatening a setback for labour relations in South Africa.
This could in turn feed into lower levels of investment, possibly lower growth, and a deteriorating fiscal balance for Africa’s largest economy.
Hundreds of police have camped out at the mine, patrolling in small convoys of vehicles and conducting aerial surveillance by helicopter.
Flags flew at half-mast to remember the dead, who included miners and police.
“What has happened here has been a tragedy, and the pain and anger it has led to will take time to heal,” said Mark Munroe, Lonmin’s executive vice president for mining.
Members of parliament from all political parties, together with leaders from various churches, are expected to hold a memorial service in Parliament’s Old Assembly Chamber tomorrow in honour of the victims of the violent protests, a top ANC official said.
London-based Lonmin, which accounts for 12 percent of global platinum output, was forced last week to freeze mining as a result of the violence, but essential services such as ventilation were maintained so the mines could quickly restart production.
Lonmin’s already battered shares tumbled further on Monday, losing nearly 4 percent in late-afternoon trade in Johannesburg.
The stoppage has driven platinum prices to six-week highs over $1,460 an ounce, but much of the industry remains unprofitable at a time when it is grappling with a wave of labour unrest.
Lonmin had already slashed spending plans before the latest flare-up of violence and may miss its annual production target of 750,000 ounces.
South African junior miner Royal Bafokeng Platinum is the latest miner in the sector to signal cutbacks. It reported a 60 percent drop in first-half earnings on Monday, hit by the slump in platinum prices and reduced production, and said it would accelerate its cost cuts.