South Africa's main platinum miners’ union opened government-brokered talks with the world's top three platinum companies on Friday to end a wage strike that started to turn violent on its second day.
Union leaders representing as many as 100,000 miners who walked off work on Thursday sat down with officials of the three firms that produce more than half the world's platinum, a metal used in catalytic converters in cars.
The three companies - Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum and Lonmin say union demands to more than double the miners' basic pay are "unaffordable and unrealistic."
The strike and fears of unrest hit the rand, pushing it through the psychologically key 11.0 to the dollar to levels last seen five years ago. Violence in the platinum sector could trigger a heavier sell-off in the currency.
The companies' talks with the hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) were held under the auspices of South Africa's main commercial arbitration body, labour ministry spokesman Musi Zondi said.
"Obviously it would be good if something positive were to come out of it," he said.
The government stepped in to mediate the dispute and avoid damage to an already struggling economy and to the political standing of President Jacob Zuma and the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which faces general elections in three months.
Police reported several violent incidents, including the torching of a Chinese furniture shop in Marikana, a mining town near Rustenburg, and the barricading of roads with burning tyres, stones and rubble. No arrests had been made.
PLATINIUM BELT TENSION
Police armoured vehicles roamed the platinum belt, 120 km (70 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, mindful of the bloodshed and violence of the last two years, especially at Marikana, where 34 miners were shot dead by police 18 months ago.
Security guards at an Amplats' mine near Rustenburg told Reuters not to drive towards the mine gates as strikers were blocking anyone from crossing their picket line.
"They will damage your car if you drive further," one said. Implats said strikers were blocking miners who wanted to report for work at its operations.
"Never a good situation as it raises tension and the risk for potential violence," Implats spokesman Johan Theron said.
Despite its efforts, the government has been unable to soothe nearly two years of tensions in the platinum belt, where miners are angry about their lack of economic progress two decades after the end of apartheid.
The AMCU-affiliated workers say they will not call off the strike until their demand for a 12,500 rand a month minimum basic wage are met. Basic wages for miners are currently about 5,000 rand.
"There is nothing that can change our demands," prominent AMCU member Evans Ramokga told Reuters.