Striking miners say "no way" to South Africa president's request to return to work

Ernest Morake shook his head and laughed when he heard that South Africa's president wanted striking miners to return to work.

"He doesn't know anything about the mines," Morake said Thursday of South African President Jacob Zuma.

In a speech on the state of the economy on Wednesday, Zuma said wildcat strikes were damaging South Africa's economy and asked striking miners to immediately return to work.

But miners like Morake are not listening to Zuma, who is widely regarded by many across South Africa's mining belts as aloof to their practical concerns.

"We are not going to go back to work without the money," said Morake, who is 27 years old and the father of two children.

Morake was one of thousands of striking AngloGold Ashanti employees who gathered on a rocky hill near Fochville, in the country's North West province, on Thursday to march and sing in the latest demonstration of their staying power. Even as the employers are threatening the loss of jobs, and though money lenders are no longer giving loans, many striking miners feel that the employers have the most to lose from a protracted stalemate.

"We are not going to quit until we get the right offer," said a miner who gave his name as Manyane who is among the AngloGold Ashanti employees demanding at least 18,500 rand (about $2,100) in monthly pay, an increase from the 4,000 rand (about $450) per month they say they now get paid. "We are peaceful. But if they fire us and hire other people then that will start violence. If they do that we are going to war."

Strike action at gold and platinum mines had cost the country about 4.5 billion rand (more than $500 million) in lost output by mid-September, Zuma told a meeting of businessmen in Johannesburg last week. Citing the impact of unresolved strikes in the crucial mining sector, the credit rating agencies S&P and Moody's have downgraded South Africa's credit rating.

At the peak of the wildcat strikes, about 80,000 mineworkers — representing 16 percent of the mining workforce — were striking across South Africa. The wildcat strikes have been marred by violence, most notably an incident on Aug. 16 when police shot and killed 34 miners at a platinum mine in Marikana. Analysts say the Marikana strike may have motivated strike action by mineworkers elsewhere because the Marikana miners in the end succeeded in winning a pay raise of up to 22 percent.

AngloGold Ashanti managers have said they are considering giving the miners an ultimatum: Get back to work or get fired.

Fellow gold-mining company Gold Fields threatened to fire striking miners on Monday if they didn't return to work by Thursday, an ultimatum that saw only some of the thousands of striking employees return to work this week.

Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), the world's top producer of platinum, two weeks ago dismissed 12,000 striking miners who had staged what the company considered an "unlawful" strike. Those miners have since dug in, threatening to make the company's operations in Rustenburg ungovernable. This week the Congress of South African Trade unions (COSATU) came out strongly in support of the fired miners, saying it would organize protest marches if they were not reinstated by Oct. 27.

It remains unclear how these strikes will be resolved.

"We call on workers who are engaged in unprotected strikes to return to work as soon as possible and for production in the mining industry to be normalized," Zuma said in his speech on Wednesday. He also called for "a freeze in increases in salary and bonuses over the next 12 months" for executives in the private and public sector in order to "build an equitable economy."

For some striking miners, the time to get what they believe is a decent wage is now.

"It's very hard, very hard," said a gold miner who gave his name as Thabo, pointing to the sprawling shacks where workers like him live. "We don't even qualify for loans now because we are broke. Jacob Zuma doesn't know what he's talking about."