* Massive platinum strike starts
* Half of world platinum production affected
* Police out in force near Lonmin's Marikana mine
By Ed Stoddard
MARIKANA, South Africa, Jan 23 South African
mines producing half the world's platinum shut down on Thursday
as the sector's main union began a strike for hefty wage hikes
their employers say they cannot pay.
Members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction
Union (AMCU) walked out at Anglo American Platinum,
Impala Platinum and Lonmin, the top three
producers of the metal used in catalytic converters in cars.
The chief executives of the three companies have said the
wage demands are "unaffordable and unrealistic" and warned the
industry could ill-afford further production and job losses.
The latest wave of labour unrest put the rand on the ropes,
knocking it to a new-five year low of 10.9795 against the dollar
as investors fretted about the impact of the strikes on
an already fragile economy.
Amplats said the strike had affected mining at its Union,
Rustenburg and Amandelbult sites, where low attendance was
recorded. All processing operations were operating normally.
Implats closed its mines and processing units at Rustenburg,
northwest of Johannesburg, before the strike began.
Implats expects to lose about 2,800 ounces of platinum daily
while smaller rival Lonmin estimates losses at some 3,100 a day.
Lonmin mining and processing operations were suspended on
Thursday and it said it would assess the situation daily.
"The strike action certainly wasn't a surprise to anyone
though so they might have strategically stockpiled a bit of
metal especially as the market expected prices to rally on the
back of strike action," said Investec analyst Marc Elliott.
AMCU has as many as 100,000 members in the platinum belt,
120 km (70 miles) northwest of Johannesburg.
"This is a revolution of the economy of South Africa, to
benefit all who live in it," AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa
told reporters after a mass rally at a football stadium marked
by prayers, songs and dancing.
Basic wages for miners are about 5,000 rand ($460) a month
and AMCU wants that hiked to 12,500 rand ($1,100).
Several AMCU activists called on President Jacob Zuma and
the African National Congress (ANC) officials to "stop the
"We are paid peanuts. And the cost of living is too high,"
said one striker at an Amplats mine who did not wish to be
named. "If they don't meet our demands, we will keep striking."
The government has offered to mediate to end the dispute
that threatens to squeeze an already struggling economy.
Besides economic damage, Zuma and the ANC want to end labour
unrest before general elections due in about three months.
But the government has been unable to soothe tensions in the
platinum belt, where miners are angry about their lack of
economic progress two decades after the end of apartheid.
"There is no concrete government action to prevent the kind
of rolling strikes that we are seeing now for eleven months of
the year," labour economist Loane Sharp said. "The government
has lost control of the labour movement in South Africa."
AMCU is seeking a more than doubling of the basic
entry-level wage from the three producers. The companies are
offering increases of 7.5-8.5 percent, well above the 5.4
percent inflation rate.
The companies were battered by wildcat strikes in 2012
rooted in a turf war between AMCU and the National Union of
Mineworkers in which dozens of people were killed.
Mindful of the bloodshed and violence of the last two years,
police deployed in force, especially near Lonmin's Marikana mine
where 34 miners were shot dead by police 18 months ago.
It is hard to estimate the duration of the stoppage amid
recent signs of divisions in AMCU's ranks.
Dissidents said this week they planned to form a rival
union, accusing Mathunjwa of recklessly pursuing a damaging
strike they say many miners do not want and cannot afford.
Mathunjwa dismissed reports of divisions in the ranks as
attempts to "undermine AMCU".