Striking black miners walked out of talks with South Africa's biggest mining company Tuesday after reports that police had again fired on strikers. The talks had been called in an effort to find ways of ending violence in the 10-day-old strike.
The National Union of Mineworkers said that police had fired birdshot, rubber bullets and tear-gas grenades at miners waiting to board taxis and buses outside a mine and then had beaten them with whips, injuring 15 men.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the union's general secretary, accused the giant Anglo American Corp., owner of the President Steyn Gold Mine in the Orange Free State, of complicity in an attack he described as part of a joint effort by government and management to break the strike, which has cut the country's gold and coal production by more than a third.
'Treacherous and Cowardly'
"We are dealing with a treacherous, cowardly and ruthless organization whose negotiations are based on deceit," Ramaphosa said of Anglo American, which has long considered itself one of South Africa's most progressive employers. "Our members are spilling their blood while we are sitting negotiating."
Anglo American denied any responsibility for the incident. A police spokesman in Pretoria said it had come about as the result of the miners' refusal to disperse when ordered to do so. The spokesman said a police patrol had fired rubber bullets and tear-gas grenades at a group of about 40 miners. No injuries were reported, he said.
Both Anglo American and the mine workers union left open the possibility of resuming negotiations on a series of proposals aimed at controlling the almost-daily violence, which has caused one death and more than 300 injuries. Both sides have expressed fear that if the clashes continue to escalate they could sweep across all the country's mining fields and spread into many of its black ghetto townships.
"Management has created an extremely volatile situation on the mines," Ramaphosa said, warning that any small incident could quickly develop into serious political unrest as well as labor unrest.
Further clashes could come today if Anglo American carries out the announced closure of a coal mine and two shafts at separate gold mines as uneconomical, dismissing an estimated 4,000 of the striking miners.
The collapse of the talks on reducing violence also would have serious implications for ending the work stoppage, already the biggest and potentially the most damaging in South African history. Ramaphosa said that the mine workers, like Anglo American, had hoped that progress on reducing violence would make it easier to resume negotiations on other central issues of the strike.
The mine workers are seeking a 30% across-the-board wage increase, but the mining firms offered, and then unilaterally implemented, raises of 15% to 23%. The companies say the pay issue is closed, but the union says it is the principal issue of the strike.
According to the independent Labor Monitoring Group, more than 315,000 of the country's 600,000 black miners are on strike, although the union claims as many as 340,000 and the Chamber of Mines says there are fewer than 220,000 out. Ramaphosa said Tuesday that more miners, including workers at three diamond mines, would soon be joining the strike.
Bobby Godsell, the head of industrial relations for Anglo American, said the company's security forces had not been involved in the incident outside the President Steyn mine, although they were apparently present.
Godsell, hoping that the union leaders will reconsider their action and resume negotiations, declared Anglo American's readiness to "talk until we solve our problems" and suggested renewed talks on non-wage issues.
"We do not intend to trade insults with the union," Godsell said, refusing to reply to Ramaphosa's criticism of the company. "We continue to be concerned about violence, and we are ready to meet the union on this issue at any time."
Most of the serious clashes in the past week have occurred at Anglo American gold mines, collieries and processing plants, but company officials maintain that union members have been guilty of sabotage, intimidation and violence against non-striking workers. "We emphatically reject responsibility for the violence," Godsell said. "We have used force on our mines where there is a clear-and-present danger to life or property, and that (policy) will continue."
But Anglo American had proposed a series of measures to ensure what it called "normal operation" of its mines and the hostels where the miners live, and the mine workers union said it would agree to these if strengthened through outside monitoring.
Ramaphosa said the union has several more demands, including a company commitment not to bring police onto mine property and agreements to drop pending charges against miners who have been arrested and to compensate those injured in earlier clashes.