Mike Hutchings / Reuters
Striking platinum miners march near the Anglo-American Platinum mine near Rustenburg in South Africa's North West Province, October 5, 2012. World no. 1 platinum producer AMPLATS said on Friday it had fired 12,000 workers taking part in a three-week illegal strike, following through on tough talk against the wildcat stoppages in South Africa's mines.
JOHANNESBURG -- Anglo American Platinum fired 12,000 wildcat strikers on Friday, a high-stakes attempt by the world's biggest platinum producer to push back at a wave of illegal stoppages sweeping through South Africa's mining sector and beyond.
The rand fell sharply after the announcement, suggesting investors fear the sackings could worsen what is shaping up to be the most damaging period of labor unrest in Africa's biggest economy since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Police shot dead one striking miner overnight, bringing the death toll in two months of unrest to 48. Strikes have spread beyond the mining sector, with Shell declaring on Friday that it would not be able to honor contracts to deliver fuel near Johannesburg because of a trucking strike.
'What happens now?'
The unrest is causing political trouble for President Jacob Zuma and his ruling African National Congress, the veteran liberation movement with long-standing ties to labor unions.
"You fire 12,000 people, and it's like 'Oh my god, what happens now?'" one Johannesburg-based currency strategist said.
When rival Impala Platinum fired 17,000 workers in January to squash a union turf war, it led to a six-week stoppage in which three people were killed, the company lost 80,000 ounces in output and platinum prices jumped 21 percent.
The police shooting of 34 strikers at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine on Aug. 16 poisoned labor relations in the sector even more, and the hefty wage deal that ensued triggered copycat demands in gold and iron ore mines.
"Amplats [Anglo American Platinum] had been giving signals that it was going to hold the line after Lonmin had folded -- but it's a huge gamble," said Nic Borain, an independent political analyst.
"Someone had to take it on the chin or this would have kept on unraveling and spread through the economy. It's difficult to know whether this causes the unrest to spread or whether it takes some of the sting out of it. It could go either way."
Speaking to South Africa's e-News television channel, one dismissed worker said Amplats was "starting a war."
Zuma tried to put a positive spin on the situation in a speech to business leaders late on Thursday, stressing that since the end of white-minority rule South Africans have shown "the capacity to overcome difficulties when we work together".
"We should not seek to portray ourselves as a nation that is perpetually fighting," he said.
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