Today, the country's economic inequality is among the starkest in the world, wider than in Brazil and India. In one of the developed world's most inflexible labor markets, those with state and unionized jobs reap regular raises—often rewarded after protracted strikes—while the unemployed masses have little chance of finding work.
In 2010, the most recent year for which complete government data are available, the number of working days lost to strikes rose to a record 20.6 million, 10 times higher than the previous year. The bulk of the work stoppages in 2010 came during a public-workers strike over higher pay demands. The strike kept nurses out of hospitals, teachers out of schools and customs officials from border points.
The most recent violence at Lonmin spun from a rivalry between the emerging Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union and the country's largest mine union, the National Union of Mineworkers, who are competing for majority union membership in South Africa's platinum mines. The AMCU has said it is recruiting in the platinum-producing region because of the industry's low wages. It says it plans to expand across the country and is already recruiting in iron-ore and coal-producing areas.
In February, a clash between the rivals closed the largest mine of Impala Platinum Holdings
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for six weeks. The shutdown led to the loss of 120,000 ounces of platinum production. Impala said it lost two billion rand, or roughly $250 million, in revenue because of the strike.
The rival unions have blamed each other for the violence. The NUM is part of South Africa's Congress of South African Trade Unions, an ally to the country's ruling African National Congress, which played a key role in anti-apartheid protests.
"This is the first time a substantial body of workers is splitting away from Cosatu," said Devan Pillay, a labor-relations professor at Wits University. He said worker frustrations that NUM leaders have become too close to company management and that Cosatu has become too close to the government have opened opportunities for rival unions.
Protests are common in the mining industry, where workers say work conditions haven't improved in two decades. The February clash at Impala Platinum's mine left three people dead after a pay dispute spiraled into violent confrontations with police and security guards.