Some light at the end of tunnel for retrenched miners

Nathan Sekhesa spent 27 years of his 47-year-existence in the mines of South Africa. Retrenched in 2002 and still unemployed, he stays at home, waiting for odd jobs. In the meantime, the maize, tomatoes, pumpkin and the odd herb, grown in the kitchen garden under his mother Elizabeth’s watchful eye are feeding his family of five.

A decade ago the South African mines employed 120,000 Basotho - a third of the country's male workforce. Last year the figure dropped to 55,000, according to the recruitment agency, Teba Limited.

Restructuring in the South African mining industry has drastically reduced foreign labour. The impact on households in tiny Lesotho, dependent on remittances from its miners, has been particularly severe.

Teba, and the Mineworkers Development Agency (MDA), set up by the South African National Union of Mineworkers, are attempting to offer income-generating alternatives to some of the unemployed workers languishing at home.

"Having devoted most of their lives to mining, most of the retrenched workers do not have any other skills. The simplest skill we thought we could impart was to help them grow kitchen gardens, which would at least help feed their families," Teba Country Manager Mokete Mahula told IRIN.

In 2000, Teba began providing subsidised seed, fertilizer and technical know-how to communities in the district of Mafeteng, bordering South Africa in the southwest. There are 10 districts in Lesotho and the programme intends reaching all of them.

"It has taken time, because it is very difficult to change the mindset of the retrenched workers. If they are handed seeds and asked to till the land, they consider it as an insult," Mahula explained. The projects are run in consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture.

The MDA seems to have got involved sooner. It began 10 projects in 1987, which have since spread over seven districts. "Our projects involve brick manufacturing, poultry and agriculture," said Puseletso Salae, MDA’s social plan manager.

But the MDA's impact is tiny compared to the scale of the problem. Only 12 to 13 people are covered by their projects in each district.

"Three consecutive droughts have not helped to motivate the former miners in the rural areas to farm," noted Salae.

Poverty has deepened over the past decade, as remittances by the miners that once kept households afloat dried up. That, plus the spread of HIV/AIDS, has exacerbated the impact of the food crisis.

A report by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) noted: "In the 1990s, the purchasing power of many rural and urban households in Lesotho fell sharply as migrant labourers were retrenched from the South African mines and as the Maloti, linked to the South African Rand, devalued against the US Dollar. Rural households that had remittances as their main source of income became increasingly dependent on agriculture, but on marginal lands."

Very few of the former miners have been employed in the up-and-coming textile and garment manufacturing industry, which is geared for exporting to the US market. Almost 90 percent of the Basotho employed by the factories are women, Salae said.

According to the ODI report: "Whilst these industries have created employment opportunities that have done little to support rural households containing retrenched miners since most jobs in Maseru's industries ... pay so little that remittances are rarely sent back to rural areas."

However, Salae said he is hopeful that new projects, including mining and cutting semi-precious stones, and developing nurseries, might reach out to more retrenched workers.

"At the moment we even import seedlings of vegetables and flowers from South Africa, so we have decided to develop a chain of nurseries, which will provide employment to a lot more people," Salae said.