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The protest is at the newly acquired Bafokeng Rasimone Platinum Mine, but it’s unclear what the strikers are demanding. From Moneyweb.

The timing could hardly be worse given the recent spate of job cuts announced in the mining industry linked to falling platinum group metal (PGM) prices. Image: Supplied

In an underground protest strike similar to the one that recently ended at the Gold One mine in Springs near Johannesburg, 2 205 miners embarked on an illegal underground strike at the Bafokeng Rasimone Platinum Mine in North West province on Monday.

The Rasimone mine was recently acquired by Impala Platinum (Implats) after a years-long bidding war that pitted it against Northam Platinum.

Implats confirmed the protest in a statement late on Monday. The protest action also comes just weeks after the group had one of its worst mining tragedies at another mine in the North West that claimed 12 lives.

Read: Implats to restart platinum mine after fatal accident

Implats spokesperson Johan Theron says it’s unclear at this stage what the miners are demanding. The timing could hardly be worse, given the recent spate of job cuts announced in the mining industry linked to falling platinum group metal (PGM) prices.

“This was well planned and well timed … To keep more than 2 200 miners underground for any period of time is not a trivial matter,” said Theron.

“[It] comes at a time when the financial sustainability of the entire industry is at risk due to falling metals prices. This speaks to something much bigger, possibly an internal battle among disgruntled union members.

“There’s always been good labour relations at the Rasimone mine, where about 80% of workers are represented by the National Union of Mineworkers (Num),” he added.

Health and safety

The Rasimone mine is shallow, which would allow miners to walk out with relative ease should they choose, says Theron.

According to Implats, its primary concern is the health and welfare of the striking miners, who have access to basic facilities underground.

The mining giant says it has notified the relevant authorities and mobilised emergency measures “to safeguard the health and safety of all who may be participating voluntarily, or who may have been forced to remain underground against their will”.

“Impala Bafokeng has urged its employees to avoid involvement in these illegal activities and, in line with our employee behavioural code, will address those employees who engage in illegal conduct and criminal acts in a decisive way,” says Theron.

As part of their remuneration, Bafokeng Rasimone workers receive a profit share based on net profits after tax.

There is a fear among some that should PGM prices continue to weaken and should mine profitability shrink, there will be no profits to share.

Other mines within the Implats group participate in classic share ownership schemes and receive dividends rather than a profit share.

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The Impala Rasimone strike appears to be a copycat of the recent strikes at Wesizwe Platinum’s Bakubung Mine in Rustenburg and Gold One Gold mine in Springs, outside Johannesburg. Wesizwe recently announced that some 571 staff out of a total of 761 at its Bakubung mine could be retrenched following three labour stoppages, the last one unprotected.

Num says the striking Bakubung miners are demanding 100% medical aid coverage, living out allowances of R6 800, leave allowances and the resignation of the general manager who announced that the company would issue Section 189 notices (as required by the Labour Relations Act ahead of retrenchments).

The Gold One strike in Springs earlier this month lasted five days, with more than 400 miners camped underground. This was the second such incident at the mine, following an illegal underground strike in October involving more than 560 miners that lasted four days before miners, apparently running out of food, returned to the surface.

Trade union Solidarity accused the strike organisers of holding their fellow workers hostage with traditional weapons and assaulting some of them. Supervisors and contractors were also allegedly held hostage underground by strikers protesting the dismissal of about 50 workers and demanding the recognition of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

There is speculation in the mining industry that the spate of illegal copycat strikes could be politically motivated, with national elections just months away.

Num has faced challenges from Amcu at numerous mines around the country. While Num is affiliated with trade union federation Cosatu and the ANC, Amcu is more radical, though its political affiliations are unclear.