Voices from Marikana

Friday, August 16, 2013

By Bathandwa Mbola

It is a year after the Marikana tragedy, which zoomed into the lives of the mining communities and drew attention to the enduring scale and importance of South Africa’s mineral wealth.

The death of the 34 striking miners at the British-owned Lonmin mine in Marikana, just less than 100 kilometres from Pretoria, along with two policemen and two security guards in a wave of unprotected violent strikes, made international headlines and saw the rand take a dip with investors selling their shares.

I went to Marikana out of curiosity, driven by a desire to understand the challenges faced by the men whose tired shoulders are crucial to the survival of our mining industry and economy.

I wanted to get the mood, after the 16 August 2012 incident that gave birth to a “new era and paradigm” in labour relations, development, health and safety.

Driving in Wonderkop, the closest settlement to the infamous “koppie” where police and miners were at loggerheads, I almost expected an eerie silence to hang over the place.

Instead we were greeted by wandering livestock; goats, chickens and dogs.

Adults were also going on with their usual lives in the background of their lopsided shacks - facing the deeply eroded dusty road.

As the car ducks the trenches in the narrow road - I see a group of girls playing the game of mgusha - where some form a circle out of a string made out of old flesh-coloured pantyhose tied together, while others jump in and out of the circle, clapping their hands rhythmically.

My eyes lock in contact with one of them: a sassy little diva with her scarlet cap and hot pink shorts and top, screaming of individuality and girlie dreams and in front of her, a barbed wire - a simple yet profound symbolism of the painful restrictions.

The moment with the sassy diva was short lived as my colleague and I plotted how we would go about engaging the community- still making sense of the events, which saw them lose their fathers, brothers, friends, neighbours and colleagues.

Armed with my notebook and pen and my fluent Xhosa - which is the popular language among the migrant workers who are mostly recruited from the former Transkei – I invited myself into a yard where a young lady was doing a pile of laundry.  I make conversation trying to get a sense of the mood in the township.

Nonceba, as she introduces herself, was not shy to detail the living conditions. From the onset of our meeting, she “vows to tell the truth”.

The 22-year-old Nonceba, who is a grade 10 dropout, lives in a two-room shack with her rock drilling stepfather, mother and two younger siblings. The family has recently been joined by a 25-year-old brother, who arrived from Lusisikisi to look for a job.

Like most that have flooded the mine, Nonceba’s brother never finished school.

“There was just no money in my family to feed us all.  My mother decided that Msindisi must find work to help balance things but that also proves to be difficult.”

Nonceba tells me more people have flooded the place to look for work, some from as far as Lesotho and Maputo, adding to the already high numbers of unemployment in the area.

“This has in ways caused tensions between the unemployed people who were born in the area, and those who come from outside [the] Marikana area,” she says.

My conversation with Nonceba is cut short by the vibrant noise of Zulu-Maskandi music in the vicinity.

I follow the sound to find a group of six men basking in the winter sunset. They’re about to unwind over unopened beers.

They welcome me in to their circle, although I could see they were weary. I had to introduce myself three times in-between our conversation.

“I’m sorry my child but this is how we live these days. We are weary and suspicious of the entire world these days,” Mongezi Mthiya, who has worked at the mine for 28 years, says.

Before I can sit, Mthiya offers me a soda and he shouts to his wife in the house to rinse a glass for me.

As I stand at the door, the wife, who smiles fondly as she asks my clan name, makes her way to the other side of the windowless room where she rinses the glass from a bucket set on a cardboard stained over the years by cooking oil. On it there is also a paraffin stove and a few pots.  I look around the room and see three strewn beds with old, dirty blankets and clothes hung from bent hangers on makeshift lines attached to the wall, leaving little room to move around.

“This is how we unwind these days after a long day’s work. We sit like this and a have a beer or two and listen to Maskandi. We can’t afford to go to ‘Never Die’ tavern [a popular shebeen], it is not safe,” the father of seven tells me.

His friend, who introduces himself only as Dlamini, adds that the tension in the community has made everyone hesitant to speak up and communicate the trauma of the death of their fellow miners.

“You mind your own business here now…we live in a jungle. We are still asking ourselves, senzeni na… [what have we done],” says Dlamini.

Although police continue to patrol the area during the day, Dlamini says police have not been able to apprehend any suspects.

Uncovering the truth

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa says the police are doing everything to conclude the cases and uncover the truth.

Police say post August 2012, they have 13 cases that are currently on the roll relating to Marikana violence. Mthethwa says some of the cases have been postponed due to the sitting of the Farlam Commission, while others are ready to proceed and ready for trial.

The last victim was a 44-year-old woman, a shop steward who was shot and killed on Sunday, three days after the country celebrated Women’s Day.

Mthethwa says these clashes are disturbing and stand in direct conflict to efforts of creating harmony in Marikana.

“We have confidence that the perpetrators will be accordingly punished,” Mthethwa said as the new Mine Crime Combating Forum (MCCF) was launched on Wednesday.

I try to shift the conversation back to 16 August 2012 to find out how the men feel.

However, during our conversation – even with Nonceba - the people in the area don’t like talking about the day. As a sign of respect, they tone down their voices and their facial expressions change as they look down.

“We have not forgotten our heroes. How can we?” asks Mthiya. He says those killed during the wildcat strike had courage driven by anger and desperation, and they engaged in the strike knowing that they could lose their jobs and families’ livelihoods.

“That is why I think they deserve to be honoured like the youth of 16 June 1976. Like them, they shifted the country and the world’s eyes to the engine that drives South Africa’s economy and the challenges that need to be addressed,” says Mthiya.

South Africa has one of the richest reserves of mineral wealth in the world and Rustenburg, where Marikana lies, is no doubt one of the engines that drive South Africa’s economy.

Mining has been a key feature of this country's economy for more than 130 years and continues to be a key component of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. By 2008, it accounted for around 35%, about R1.5 trillion, of the value of the exchange.

However, the contrast is blatantly clear as the towns around the mining communities are also home to some of the country’s poorest communities.

“What happened on that day is painful. It is still raw. One can still see that the whole community is still mourning and trying to make sense of everything,” Khaliphile Mkhaba, who was a spectator in the conversation, joins in.

Mkhaba, who moved into the community after the incident, stays with Mthiya and they are neighbours from Mqanduli. Like many, Mkhaba is in the area to find a job.

Mkhaba has a bag ready with old overalls and hard hat, boots and gloves and is waiting for the day he will be called to start working.

“I have gone through the selection process…but I am waiting for the call,” Mkhaba tells me. He says it has been a long wait and he is not optimistic of success as there are fresh rumours doing the rounds that people have to pay a bribe of between R7 000 and R10 000 to get a job in the mine.

“We don’t have that kind of money to bribe for the job but we trusting in the Lord,” says Mthiya, adding that already they are trying hard to make ends meet.

With his salary, Mthiya supports his five children at home, and still needs to support his wife and the two other kids living with them. Although he gets a R1 700 housing allowance, Mthiya says its makes little difference to his standard of living and has no prospects of renting a decent house.

Mkhaba, who has never worked, says his mission to find a job is driven by the desire to change the life back at home.

“I want to provide for my mother and my daughter and my three siblings, and to gain recognition in my village.”

Mkhaba says the “neglected” land of the Eastern Cape has nothing to offer them, hence they run to the mines. 

From my conversation with the 33-year-old, he doesn’t have extravagant dreams. He simply wants to build a decent three-bedroom house and a rondavel for his mother, get married to the love of his life and maybe one day send his younger siblings to university to give them the opportunity he never had.

When I leave, the men who were at first hesitant, thanked me for visiting. They pleaded with me to “tell their story and improve their situation”.

From my visit to the area, the 16 August 2012 incident was not simply the result of an illegal wage strike that got out of hand. Rather, its causes are complex and are borne from socio-economic desperation, cultivated by decades of inequality, and employee and community alienation from unions and mining houses.

In accepting this unhappy reality, responsible mining industry stakeholders and government are unanimous in their conviction that what happened in Marikana and in its immediate aftermath must never be repeated.

Government concedes that workers coming from dysfunctional communities are counterproductive to the economy.

It also makes sense that mining communities should benefit from the mining activities taking place at their door steps, Minister in the Presidency responsible for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Collins Chabane said recently.

“It is something that we cannot tolerate as government. Mining communities have to be able to feel the benefits of having these mines,” Chabane told SAnews during a visit to Boitekon mining area, about 20 kilometres from the town of Rustenburg. 

The tragedy has forced government to also rethink some of its laws. Just last month, President Jacob Zuma signed into law the Dangerous Weapons Bill, which prohibits the carrying of weapons such as knobkerries and spears in public.

Mine Crime Combating Forum

Government has also put in place the MCCF, which falls under the auspices of the Framework Agreement for a Sustainable Mining Industry, entered into by organised labour, business, unions and government.

It will deal with the escalating unrest in the industry by creating a platform for information sharing, improving communication and in turn, lead to less unprotected industrial action. It will first be established in Rustenburg, Klerksdorp and Brits.

The MCCF will ensure that law enforcement agencies act in a manner that is fair, impartial and objective, and that all care is taken to protect life and property.

Minister Mthethwa says the forum will “act decisively to enforce the rule of law, maintain peace during strikes and other protests relating to labour disputes, ensure protection of life, property and the advancement of the rights of all citizens, including crime prevention measures”.

It will also put in place “adequate and appropriate” capacity in the form of detectives and specialist prosecution teams to prosecute cases on violence, intimidation, assault and murder in the mines, and also prioritise the investigation and finalisation of cases arising from lawlessness in appropriate designated courts.

“The implementation of the framework is therefore not an option, but a must, for the sake of this generation and future generations,” Mthethwa says, reiterating that safety and security is a shared responsibility for all parties involved.

“We share a common vision, which is to see a flourishing, productive and secure mining sector that can play a pivotal role in our country’s economic emancipation.”

Police personnel that are currently monitoring the situation at Marikana are a mixture of personnel drawn from different divisions, including public order policing, detectives, visible policing and these units, according to Mthethwa have the necessary capacities, command and control structures to effectively carry out their duties, all within the framework of respect of the law and Constitution.

A ‘Presidential Package’ aligned to the Mining Charter is also in place. It commits mining companies to, in consultation with stakeholders, establish measures for improving the standard of housing, including the upgrading of hostels, conversion of hostels to family units and promoting ownership options.

The work involves identifying common priorities and roles for each partner such as addressing the blockages to the proper use of budgeted resources to local government; integrating local development plans with national infrastructure roll-out plans, better utilisation of resources that mining companies have made available under the auspices of the Mining Charter and special focus on mining towns and areas such as Rustenburg, Lephalale, eMalahleni, West Rand, Welkom, Klerksdorp and Carletonville.

Signed by all major stakeholders, with the exception of Amcu, the agreement commits all signatories to work together to ensure the sustainability of the mining sector for the future of the country and its people. Of critical significance is the obligation of all parties at all times to abide by the rule of law and commit themselves to peace and stability.

The commission of inquiry appointed to establish just what happened in the days leading up to August 16 has yet to conclude its work.

Judge Ian Farlam and his team were initially given four months to finish their probe but their work has been plagued by numerous challenges, such as funding for the families of the deceased to attend proceedings.

Despite the challenges, the commission, mandated by government, continues probing what happened in the dusty mining town last August. – SAnews.gov.za


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