Miners working for world number three platinum producer Lonmin launched a wildcat strike today, halting all mining operations.
Lonmin's Marikana mine was the epicentre of strikes last year that saw 34 protesting workers illed by police in a single day in August, sparking widespread criticism of the African National Congress (ANC) government's handling of the mine troubles.
The platinum belt towns of Rustenburg and Marikana are a volatile flashpoint of labour strife and tensions are running high with job cuts and wage talks looming.
The share price of Lonmin slid almost 7 per cent and the rand currency hit three-week lows, as investors worried about a repeat of 2012's turmoil, which hammered platinum and gold production and triggered credit downgrades for Africa's largest economy.
Platinum's spot price rose 1.5 per cent on news of the strike, widening its premium over gold to more than $60 an ounce, the highest in a month.
"Lonmin operations were suspended this morning owing to an unlawful work stoppage. All 13 shafts are not operational. Employees have arrived at work but did not proceed underground," said a Lonmin spokesman.
Social tensions in the area have been stoked by plans by Anglo American Platinum, the world's top producer of the precious metal, to slash 6,000 jobs in a bid to restore profits. That is less than half the 14,000 initially targeted but unions have still vowed to fight against the lay-offs.
Further complicating the picture is a turf war between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – a political ally of the ruling ANC, which has lost many of its members to the AMCU.
A spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said the strike appeared to stem from anger over the weekend killing of a local organiser from rival union Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
AMCU has poached tens of thousands of disgruntled workers from the dominant NUM and the union turf war shows little sign of letting up.
Gideon du Plessis, deputy general secretary of the Solidarity trade union, which represents skilled workers, said he understood AMCU was demanding the NUM close its office at Lonmin. AMCU now represents over 70 per cent of the company's workforce.
Hundreds of Lonmin workers, some carrying branches and sticks, chanting "Down with NUM, we will destroy it today", marched to the rocky outcrop near Lonmin's Marikana mine where 34 strikers were shot dead by police in August last year.
"Peace and returning to normal production in our mining industry is absolutely critical to our economy so I'm hoping that everybody sits down together and solves their problem," South Africa's Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said in Cape Town today.
The company has told the strikers to return to their posts, adding their action could lead to job losses.
"We urge you to refrain from this unprotected (illegal) action and immediately return to work. Failure to do this could result in further reduction of jobs at Lonmin," it said in an internal memo to staff, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.
It said the strike action "will severely impact the viability of Lonmin and will put your work and the sustainability of your family at risk".