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For Many S. Africans, Strikes Recall Apartheid Era


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

In South Africa, striking mineworkers are still locked in a deadly dispute over pay.

MONTAGNE: Thirty-four of their colleagues were shot dead when the police opened fire during a confrontation last month. This came after two police officers and eight other people were killed in earlier clashes. South Africa's main mining unions have reached what's being called a peace agreement with the company that owns the world's third largest platinum mine.

INSKEEP: But the strikers are refusing to return to work or to talk until their demands for more money are met. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Three thousand striking platinum workers took to the streets of the mining town of Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg, protesting against what they say is their paltry pay. They marched, danced and sang, stamping their feet and waving sticks and branches last week.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Mining - platinum, gold, diamonds - is at the heart of South Africa's economy. But mediator, Methodist Reverend Paul Verryn, one of the respected religious leaders trying to help broker a peaceful settlement, says platinum mineworkers are not benefitting from their country's wealth.

REVEREND PAUL VERRYN: You know, you come to one of the richest mines in South Africa and the squalor that the miners are working in - the very people who extricate the minerals - it is unbelievable.

QUIST-ARCTON: This dispute is being cast by many as symbolic of the haves versus the have nots in South Africa, almost 20 years after apartheid and white minority rule ended. The Marikana miners have struck a chord with many who say they were promised a better life, but feel betrayed. The shooting deaths of the miners, by the police on August 16th, has shocked this nation. Xolani Mzuzi and other miners say they deserve better.

XOLANI MZUZI: No, Peace accord, no. Twelve thousand five hundred, just one, 12,500. So it's kind of...

QUIST-ARCTON: Mzuzi and hundreds of his colleagues say they're not interested in any deal that does not include their demand for a monthly take-home pay of 12,500 rands - equivalent to about a $1,500, about twice what they've been getting.

Now there's a cordon of police armored vehicles here. The delegation of striking mineworkers, along with Bishop Paul Verryn, is heading for talks, we believe, with Lonmin mine management.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: There's a razor wire separating the striking miners, who are on their knees, from the management at Lonmin's Karee 3 mineshaft, but both sides talk.

JAN THIRION: (Unintelligible) 20 years (unintelligible) mine management. Twenty years...

QUIST-ARCTON: There's a heated exchange. Jan Thirion is in charge of the shaft.

THIRION: I pleaded to the guys to come back to work. And they first want the money and then come back to work. It's like keeping a gun against somebody's head.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thirion says the striking miners threatened them.

THIRION: They said all of us had better go or we must leave here. If we don't leave here, they will come and burn down the shaft, burn down the cars and kill us.

QUIST-ARCTON: What was your response?

THIRION: I said to them, why do they talk like that? We wants to talk peace, they wants to talk war.

VERRYN: Barbed wire, on your knees, pleading, pleading, pleading for reasonable working hours, for reasonable pay.

QUIST-ARCTON: Reverend Paul Verryn, the mediator, says he's appalled by the attitude shown to the group of striking miners.

VERRYN: Instead, there's this aloof almost arrogance.

QUIST-ARCTON: Observers say this is evidence of South Africa still grappling with the vestiges of the past - apartheid and inequality. But platinum is not fetching the global price it used to and Lonmin warns that 40,000 jobs could be at risk if the miners' wildcat strike persists. Talks are set to continue.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Marikana, South Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.