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South Africa hosts ‘peace talks’ in mine strike standoff

An unidentified mine worker sings and dances during a gathering at the Lonmin Platinum Mine near Rustenburg, South Africa, Aug. 29, where negotiators are meeting behind closed doors.

Themba Hadebe/AP

South African officials sought to broker a "peace accord" Wednesday as they led talks to calm the bad blood from a violent strike at a Lonmin platinum mine where 44 people have been killed.

About 50 negotiators for management, unions and non-union workers filled the town hall in Rustenburg, near the Marikana mine in South Africa's North West province, for closed-door meetings mediated by labour ministry officials.

Both Lonmin, the world's third-largest platinum producer, and the workers' representatives kept a tight lid on the discussions, but an immediate resumption of operations at the mine – which has essentially been paralyzed since the strike began on Aug. 10 – looked unlikely.

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The company wants a "peace accord" to be sealed before talks start on workers' wage demands. But workers, who say they earn 4,000 rand a month and want 12,500 rand ($1,490 U.S.), insist they won't go back underground until their demands are met.

"We will not move from the (demand) for 12,500 rand," said Zolani Bodlani during a short break from the talks, before hanging up the phone.

Lonmin spokeswoman Sue Vey said the strikers first have to stop intimidating their colleagues who try to go back to work.

"At the end of the day it's all about public order. We cannot discuss wages when people are intimidated. It's all a matter of, 'It has to go back to normality before anything can be discussed,'" Ms. Vey told AFP.

"Today is the day of peace accord and a first step and an instrument to move together. Everyone wants it to be a success," she said.

Lonmin says workers in fact earn around 10,000 rand when bonuses and other compensation are included.

Fewer than 8 per cent of the mine's 28,000 employees showed up for work on Wednesday, a further slide in attendance as the strike, which was launched by 3,000 rock drill operators, hit its 20th day.

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Police opened fire on striking workers at the mine on Aug. 16, killing 34, after an escalating standoff between rival unions that had already killed 10 people including two police officers.

The incident was the worst day of police violence in South Africa since the end of white-minority apartheid rule in 1994.

London-listed Lonmin relies on the Marikana mine for about 92 per cent of its annual production.

Unions and Lonmin bosses, led by executive vice-president Mark Munroe, often broke away from the meeting room Wednesday to consult with members of their delegations, refusing to give out details on the proceedings.

"The meeting is tense, but everyone recognizes the need to find a solution to this problem. It may take some time to arrive at a solution," an official from the ministry told AFP.

The talks include both the powerful National Union of Mineworkers and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, whose bitter rivalry has been blamed for the unrest at the mine.

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An official from South Africa's labour dispute resolution agency said the talks would last until Friday.

Outside the town hall, Lonmin employee Benzi Tau told AFP: "We trust that our leaders will convince the employer to come to a sensible decision. So far they haven't showed any sympathy to our need."

Mediator Bishop Jo Seoka from the South African Council of Churches struck an upbeat tone before entering the venue.

"I'm very optimistic because this is the first time that all the parties are meeting. We are positive," he said.

The court case of over 250 miners arrested after the strikes also continued briefly in a Pretoria court Wednesday. The case was put on hold until Thursday after the prosecution asked for a postponement pending further investigation.

The men face charges ranging from public violence to murder, while 78 other people injured in the shooting are set to be arrested once they are discharged from hospital.

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