Five weeks after the Marikana mine massacre in South Africa’s North West Province claimed the lives of 34 protesting workers and shocked the world, the strike that prompted the violence has been declared over. But the incident has morphed into a symbol of the growing chasm between those in the government, the mining companies, and the unions leaders on the one hand and mineworkers on the other, say the local community in Marikana, a platinum mining town northwest of Johannesburg.
Many mineworkers, who live on US$600 a month, lodge with their families in single-room tin sheds clustered in a shantytown just metres from their workplace. Many of these workers are recruited through labour brokers, saving companies money they would otherwise spend on pension and benefits for directly recruited workers.
"It is too little for us for the kind of work we do. I plant dynamite, and there are hanging walls inside the mines. We can die anytime," said Ayanda Ndabeni*, a 30-year-old mineworker at the Lonmin platinum mine. He said he is entitled to health insurance, but it does not cover his family. "There is no education allowance, no other benefits. There are hostels and houses [provided by the company] which are only for people who know the union and management. We know the company makes a lot of money from the work we do."
Lack of representation
The mineworkers approached their union repeatedly over the years, but failed to evoke a satisfactory response, said Ndabeni, a statement corroborated by other mineworkers IRIN spoke to. They decided to take action on their own, gathering on a hill near the shantytown every day until 16 August, when police let loose a volley of bullets and sent armoured personnel carriers after them, he said.
|They speak good English [and were talking to the management of the mine]. They were the ones we went to with our problems. The government and [President Jacob] Zuma, too - who were telling us 'what, what' and stop the strike - they let us down for too many years|
"I could see the ‘hippos’ crushing people. I ran and ran to my room here. I just lay there shaking for a long time," Ndabeni recalled. He says he feels betrayed by the "educated people" in the National Union of Mineworkers and government. He explained, "They speak good English [and were talking to the management of the mine]. They were the ones we went to with our problems. The government and [President Jacob] Zuma, too - who were telling us 'what, what' and stop the strike - they let us down for too many years."
Crispen Chinguno, a researcher with the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of Witwatersrand, who has been studying the unrest that has affected South Africa's mining sector, said the unions in the area have become a "human resource tool" of the management to maintain order and discipline. "They no longer actually represent the interests of the workers," Chinguno said. He has also noted an increased use of violence to forge worker solidarity.
In February 2012, another mine in the area, Implats, was hit by a strike, with workers seeking better pay. "The strike ended after a six-week trail of destruction. At least three workers were killed and 50 severely injured; 100 were charged with public violence and 55 foreign shop owners were temporarily displaced after their stores were ransacked by mobs of workers on strike and the public," Chinguno said.
After the Marikana incident, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, a former mine union official, acknowledged that the poor socio-economic conditions of the workers had been a trigger for the strike action. "Tragically, in the platinum sector in particular and mining in general, employees and companies have paid lip service to the undertaking in the charter to ensure that living and working conditions of workers in the mining sector are improved," he told media last weekend.
Need for social investment
But this fact has not been hidden from the government, says David van Wyk, chief researcher with the Bench Marks Foundation, a non-profit, faith-based organization that monitors companies' practices against the Principles for Global Corporate Responsibility, an international instrument measuring social responsibility.
The organization had presented its latest report, focusing on the platinum mining sector in the Bojanala region, where Marikana is located, just days before the massacre there.The report describes the workers living in an unhealthy environment, with poor nutrition and often no access to clean water or electricity. Those hired through brokers often come from other provinces or countries and live in informal settlements that have mushroomed in the area, as the provincial and local governments have been unable to provide low-cost housing to even the local residents. Those living in hostels - which have been provided by the mining companies since the apartheid era, when cheap labour was contracted from other provinces - fare no better.
“[The companies] are more interested in maximizing their profits, and their attitude towards the workers - since the apartheid era, when the working class lived in these shantytowns away from the richer white suburbs - has carried on. The question to ask them is, ‘Will your white manager live in one of these hostels?’” said van Wyk.
In a statement to IRIN, Lonmin said it had spent millions of dollars on supporting schools and clinics in the community, providing training to their workers and scholarships for university students. Workers hired directly earn over a $1,000 a month, with an additional housing allowance of $220.
This week, Lonmin agreed to a 11 to 22 percent hike in salaries - the largest ever negotiated increase in South Africa, but it is unclear if sub-contracted workers will also benefit. The company also said it would move away from contract mining, but did not set a time-frame.
Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
|The workers and their families live in single room tin-sheds|
To acquire a mining licence, companies are required to submit a social and labour plan. "These social plans have to be negotiated with the community, but it is impossible to get hold of the social plans. You are almost forced to stand under police guard in the City Council offices to look at this thing, and you're not allowed to copy it or anything. You are confronted with a 600-page document, and community people can't get access. And these documents were not constructed with them participating because most of these documents are desktop exercises done in [the affluent area of] Sandton by consultants who make millions out of it," van Wyk said at a University of Witwatersrand workshop on the Marikana incident.
He said his organization has found that mining companies go through the motions of making social investments, without actually engaging the communities or local authorities. "You will find clinics constructed by the companies in the middle of nowhere, with no staff because they did not consult with the local authorities, who have been unable to deploy staff to an unauthorised construction."
Bench Marks Foundation director John Capel said parliament should amend the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Act to ensure that companies share their profits with the community.
The government acknowledges that mining companies have not made substantial investments in improving workers’ living conditions, despite the leverage South Africa has as one of the world’s largest reserves of precious minerals. "There are still hostels where 166 people share four toilets in some mines, and that is not acceptable," said President Zuma in his statement on the Marikana incident. "Mining companies and the trade unions must urgently discuss and resolve the issues."
As an indicator of the amount of money the mining sector makes in South Africa, Zuma told a trade union conference that strikes have cost South Africa nearly $563 million in lost gold and platinum production this year.
Despite post-apartheid hopes that black leaders would improve working conditions, the inclusion of members of the black elite in the ownership of these mines has not made much of a difference. "The black elite have only replaced the white elite in that sense and slipped into that lifestyle, effortlessly drifting away from the ordinary working class," said van Wyk.
Piers Pigiou, the project director for Southern Africa for the International Crisis Group said the Marikana incident represented both a wake-up call and an opportunity for the government to do something about service delivery and development. "There has been a lack of vision and sense of priority from the government. Here is their chance to show they are sensitive to what is happening on the ground."
South Africans have been increasingly unhappy over the lack of delivery and jobs, says Peter Alexander, the South African research chair of social change and professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg. He notes in an article in the Mail & Guardian, that there has been an increase in what he describes as the "rebellion of the poor" in South Africa as a reaction to seemingly inadequate government response.
In his analysis of crowd management data released by the police authorities, he found, "during the past three years, 2009 to 2012, there has been an average of 2.9 unrest incidents a day. This is an increase of 40 percent over the average of 2.1 unrest incidents a day recorded for 2004-2009."
The Lonmin settlement has not ended unrest in the South African mining industry. On Thursday there was more strike action in the nearby Anglo American Platinum mine, the world's biggest producer of platinum, police used water cannons to disperse the protestors. The strikers were demanding a significant wage increase.