New clashes in S. Africa as Lonmin miners go back to work

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South African police clashed with residents near a mine of the world's top platinum firm Anglo American on Thursday, as miners at nearby Lonmin went back to work.

The protesters blocked roads, and police fired teargas and stun grenades to disperse them, as the Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) workers faced a Thursday-night deadline to call off an illegal strike and return to work.

"There was an illegal gathering that took place this morning," police spokesman Dennis Adriao told AFP. "Police used teargas as well as water cannon to disperse individuals. Stun grenades were used as well."

Police denied having used rubber bullets after residents claimed they had been fired in the Sondela informal settlement where black smoke billowed as miners and residents barricaded roads with rocks and burning tyres.

The unrest at Amplats in the platinum belt of Rustenburg, 120 kilometres (75 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, appeared to be escalating just as a deadly six-week strike at a nearby Lonmin's Marikana plant wound down.

Lonmin workers returned to work on Thursday after a deal was brokered to end the crippling strike in which 46 people died over a six-week standoff that spurred knock-on protests at other gold and platinum mines.

Amplats said it was "disappointed" with a less than 20-percent worker turnout at four of its mines, and it gave its workers an ultimatum to return to work for the Thursday night shift or face legal action.

"No-one is willing to go back, absolutely no-one," workers representative Gaddhafi Mdoda said.

President Jacob Zuma has sent the army into the troubled Marikana area until January to back up police in a security crackdown ordered amid fears of major economic fallout brought by the wave of mine closures.

Central bank governor Gill Marcus also sounded the alarm, after Zuma warned this week that billions of rands in gold and platinum production had been lost from the mining sector, the backbone of Africa's biggest economy.

The bank cut its GDP growth forecast for the year to 2.6 percent, slightly down from 2.7 percent.

Marcus said "the domestic outlook is also likely to be constrained by local developments particularly in the mining sector which have the potential to undermine the already fragile private sector investment sentiment".

"There is a risk that the recent wage settlements in the mining sector could set a precedent for wage demands more generally."

There have been fears the Lonmin deal set a dangerous precedent in wage battles, as the deal was secured after workers had bypassed recognised union structures and following shocking bloodshed.

"It is giving us an advantage," Mdoda said, adding that Amplats could pay more than the wage rises Lonmin had agreed to.

He said workers would not demand less than 12,500 rands (1,200 euros, $1,500) -- the same amount demanded by Lonmin staff and by 15,000 workers who also downed tools at Gold Fields 11 days ago.

Though Lonmin's deal fell slightly short of that figure, the mine rebounded into action Thursday.

Workers were chatting loudly as they shuffled to the turnstile entrance to a shaft for their morning shift.

"We're happy to go to work," said one of them, Yandisa Mehlo, 37. "We got what we wanted."

Others were less satisfied, but returned to work anyway out of desperation after going without pay for over a month.

"I return to work because I'm so hungry," said Phumlile Macefane, 24, saying he was unhappy with new wage deal.

Company spokeswoman Sue Vey said attendance had hit 77 percent after turnout had plunged to below one percent during the strike, which dated to August 10, at the world's number three platinum producer.

"No production is happening today because people are receiving safety briefings and briefings by the management regarding the strike," she said.

The breakthrough was bitterly won after the illegal strike sparked the worst police violence since the end of apartheid in 1994, with 34 people shot dead at the Marikana plant.

The latest fatality came Wednesday when a woman died after she was shot by police using rubber bullets in a government-ordered crackdown last weekend.

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