The world’s top platinum producer fired 12,000 workers who refused to return to work on Friday, apparently an attempt by the company to stem the tide of wildcat strikes that have shaken South Africa’s mining industry and unsettled Africa’s biggest economy.
The move by the company, Anglo American Platinum, is likely to heighten tensions in South Africa amid a wave of sometimes violent and illegal strikes by workers at platinum, gold and iron ore mines. Last week, Moody’s downgraded South Africa’s bond rating for the first time since 1994, and the country’s currency, the rand, has weakened in recent days.
The mining industry has been in turmoil since Aug. 16, when the police opened fire on miners who had gathered outside a mine in Marikana, killing 34 and wounding dozens more. About 75,000 miners are believed to be on strike, representing nearly a fifth of the industry’s work force.
Anglo American Platinum said Friday that just 20 percent of its workers had been showing up at its shafts, forcing the closing of the company’s entire operation in the Rustenberg area, home to the world’s richest platinum deposit.
Leaders of the African National Congress, South Africa’s governing party, have struggled to contain the mining crisis despite their deep ties to trade unions. The wildcat strikes have been initiated by rival unions that criticize the A.N.C. and the traditional unions as being too complacent now that they are in power.
On Friday, a branch leader for the country’s largest mineworkers union, the National Union of Mineworkers, which is closely allied with the A.N.C., was shot to death near a mine run by Lonmin, the company at the heart of the deadly unrest in Marikana, Reuters reported. A union spokesman was quoted as saying that the leader had been killed “execution-style.”