Johannesburg - As many as 12 000 striking South African miners heeded a company ultimatum to return to work on Thursday, offering hope that a long and often violent labour conflict may be cooling.
Gold Fields [JSE:GFI] reported that the vast majority of 15 000 illegally striking workers had met a 2:00 pm deadline to return to work. Company spokesperson Willie Jacobsz said 80% of workers at one facility had clocked in on Thursday, while 100% had now turned up at another.
The turnout is likely to be seen as a tactical victory for embattled gold producers which have been struggling with weeks of strikes, but the prospect remained of thousands of workers still being fired.
"Everybody who did not turn up and clock in today will be dismissed," Jacobsz told AFP, cautioning that the firm was still verifying whether everyone who clocked in stayed at work.
He said Gold Fields would be in a position on Friday morning to determine the final number of employees who will be sacked.
Gold Fields workers began their strike about a month ago, and many remained determined that their wage demands be met.
"I heard about the 2:00 pm deadline on the news. But we don't care about that, what we care about is money," said Kipusa, a 32-year-old Gold Fields worker.
As die-hard strikers vowed to try and stop workers turning up on Friday, Gold Fields said it was ready for trouble.
"We've got a very high security presence. We'll do whatever it is possible for us to ensure the people are safe to go to work," said Jacobsz.
Meanwhile around 4 000 workers at platinum giant Lonmin's Marikana mine, the scene of deadly violence in August, renewed a work stayaway amid allegations of police harassment.
Employees at the mine had been back at work for almost a month, after the worst violence seen in post-apartheid South Africa prompted management to agree a substantial pay rise.
In all 46 people were killed, both workers and police, over weeks of violence that are now being investigated by a government-appointed commission of inquiry.
But with months of strikes continuing to cripple the mining sector, which fuels 19 percent of South Africa's economy, miners are coming under mounting pressure from employers, government and even unions to return to work.
President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday called on the strikers "to return to work as soon as possible and for production in the mining industry to be normalised."
The National Union of Mineworkers, which for decades has been tasked with negotiating contracts with mine bosses, called for negotiators to be allowed to "engage the employers on the issues".
Spurred on by pay rises at Marikana mine, strikers have dismissed deals between established unions and management, accusing them of being in league.
Gold miners last week flatly rejected a deal brokered between the National Union of Mineworkers and the Chamber of Mines, raising the spectre of destabilising mass dismissals.
Sackings of thousands of people are not unheard of in South Africa. But they are often part of a tough negotiating gambit rather than a final coup to striking workers, who often end up getting their jobs back under a subsequent deal.
Last week the world's top platinum producer, Anglo American Platinum, sacked 12 000 workers in one day after they failed to meet a deadline to return to work.
On Thursday the firm said operations had been reduced to only "essential services" since the dismissal.
"It remains our stated position that we will not reinstate the 12 000 dismissed Rustenburg employees," the firm said, adding it was at the same time "willing to discuss their status".
According to independent labour analyst Daniel Silke, mine owners threatening sackings are struggling to reconcile the short-term need to keep wage bills low and a longer-term need to dramatically restructure operation to end the reliance on masses of cheap labour.
"There's a short-term strategic attempt to reverse Marikana, but there is a medium- to long-term attempt to restructure labour in South Africa to reflect the changing global dynamics of the mining industry," he said.
South Africa's mines have in recent years struggled against international competitors with lower wage and extraction costs.