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Published: Tuesday, 8/21/2012


Mine disaster

The killing of 34 strikers and wounding of 78 others by police at a South African platinum mine is a tragedy that points to needed action.

Last week, a crowd of angry men in the town of Marikana, armed with sticks and machetes, moved toward armed security forces who, in fear or anger, opened fire on them. The incident was reminiscent of such deadly confrontations during South Africa's apartheid era as the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, which killed 69 people, and the Soweto riots of 1976, which claimed 700 victims.

Amid a falling world price for platinum, the company that owns the mine has been unwilling to meet the Marikana workers' demands for higher pay and better conditions. The mine is more than a mile deep and hellishly hot.

The union that ostensibly represents the miners is associated with South Africa's ruling African National Congress. It is opposed by another, breakaway union, whose demands to employers about pay and conditions are more radical.

The matter is serious for the South African government, the rest of Africa, and Africa's situation in the world. There is a perception that the country's post-apartheid black leaders have lined up with foreigners and the still-privileged white minority against black South Africans.

The nation's unemployment rate is about 24 percent. Yet for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa remains the locomotive that pulls the continent's economic and political train, based on its financial strength. For the rest of the world, South Africa is considered to be the continent's flagship.

These factors call for rapid action by President Jacob Zuma's government to fix the problems that led to the Marikana tragedy. He could start by mending the gap between the unions, then work with the mine operator and the unions to improve the situation of the workers.

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