After nearly two months of wildcat strikes, mine workers are divided some are throwing in the towel, whereas others are sticking to high wage demands.
Workers remain on strike at AngloGold Ashanti's gold mine, Harmony Gold's Kusasalethu mine, Gold Fields's mines in Gauteng, Atlatsa Resources's Bokoni platinum mine and Anglo American Platinum mines in Rustenburg and Limpopo.
But some workers have returned to work. On Wednesday, Village Main Reef reported that most of the workforce at its Blyvooruitzicht gold mine reported for duty and 6200 Gold Fields workers returned to work at Beatrix 1, 2 and 3 shafts in the Free State, following an ultimatum that they had to return or would be dismissed. This was followed by the return of 2 800 more workers to the Beatrix 4 shaft.
On Wednesday, thousands of workers, reportedly from AngloGold Ashanti, Village Main Reef and Gold Fields gathered in Carletonville, west of Johannesburg.
"I am here with thousands of workers who have been arrested, intimidated by employers and threatened with intimidation and they are not deterred," said Liv Shange, an executive member of the Democratic Socialist Movement.
But the opinions of strike leaders differed. An ultimatum was issued on Wednesday for workers at Gold Fields' KDC West mine to return by 2pm on Thursday or be dismissed.
But on Thursday morning, matters were fraught. Police seized weapons during raids the previous night and the mine management's alleged refusal to allow workers to gather on mine premises raised the ire of some workers.
Mzimdifigi Thusani, one of the leaders of 11 000 workers at the Gold Fields KDC West mine, said on Thursday morning that although workers were ready to return to work, some demands had not been addressed and it required a decision to be made.
"Workers have been on strike for two months and they are looking towards the expensive Christmas holiday," he said.
The ultimatum was a welcome sign that the workers had attracted the attention of their employers, he said. "This is the first time since September 9 that someone from management has come to us."
Gold Fields mine workers were among the first in the gold mine sector to down tools.
Others remain resolute despite the difficulties being experienced by the strikers.
<strong>Negotiations in the pipeline</strong>
"We have not seen anything positive coming from management so we cannot go to work this week," said Rogers Motlhabane, who leads a 24 000-strong contingent of workers at AngloGold Ashanti's Carletonville mines.
Four of his fellow organisers were arrested by police on Thursday last week. When asked how the workers were eating, he laughed. "We can survive only on water until our demands are met."
Strikes are still going strong at the platinum mines. Workers at Anglo American Platinum's Swartklip and Amandelbult mines have been on strike since the beginning of October and no negotiations are in the pipeline. Atlatsa Resources dismissed more than 1000 workers at its Bokoni platinum mine earlier this week.
"We will go as far as management is pushing us," said Titus Setlhabetsi, leader of a seven-member strong strike committee at the Swartklip mine. He has joined the co-ordinating committee and represents 6 000 members at the mine. "We can run out of money and food and starve, but we cannot go back to the same slavery."
Workers are demanding up to R16 700 a month and a minimum of R12 500, up from wages that ranged between R4 000 and R7 000 a month.
Earlier this week, Anglo American Platinum dismissed 12 000 striking workers at its Rustenburg mines. But according to Makhanya Sphamandla, a strike committee leader for Anglo American mines in Khusuleka who represents 6 000 members, the effects of dismissals have not been felt.
"Many of us are still living in mine accommodation and the company is still sending us letters, so how can we be dismissed?"
On October 13, 100 strike leaders from mines in North West, Limpopo and Gauteng met in Marikana and launched the Rustenburg joint strike co-ordinating committee, which is linked to the Democratic Socialist Movement and demands a minimum wage of R12 500 for all miners.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has played down the influence of the co-ordinated unprotected strike movement. "The workers will go back to work at the end of the week," said Lesiba Seshoka, spokesperson for the NUM. "It is hardly possible to run a strike for more than two months."
But other observers believe the battlelines between mine workers and their employers will be entrenched.
"These are opportunists," said Gideon du Plessis, general secretary of trade union Solidarity. "But their timing is good because there are strikes all over the place and if someone can co-ordinate these, they can intensify."
He said the high wage demands encouraged by the Democratic Socialist Movement could keep employers away from the negotiating table. "Employers think their demands are unrealistically high and non-negotiable."
Some gold mining companies had already decided not to review their initial wage offer, which had a number of implications, Du Plessis said. "Firstly, offers are not amended or removed. Secondly, more jobs are at risk through retrenchments. And thirdly, the Democratic Socialist Movement is exposed to damage claims for embarking on illegal strike action."
He said it was unclear whether the strikes would end soon. "I don't foresee a quick fix. A culture has been created and workers are clearly prepared to sacrifice a whole lot to achieve their aims."
He also warned: "This is an opportunity to dismiss and selectively employ. But there is a skills shortage, so a large number will be rehired."