The air is different in Marikana. It lingers, heavy with platinum crystals, death, destruction and riches under the soil. Those riches, though, are not for those who delve into the heart of the Earth to extract the platinum. This was made clear eight years ago when hundreds of Lonmin miners downed tools and sat on a mound of rock, now known as the Marikana koppie, for a week to demand better wages.
The strike ended when the state, in collaboration with Lonmin, decided that shooting the men would be a better alternative than having a meaningful discussion about paying a living wage to those who risk their lives every day to make them rich.
In the days leading up to August 16, 10 people were murdered. On the day, 34 families lost loved ones, and 78 men were left wounded. Some will never have children, others can’t walk properly or do the only job they ever knew.
Lonmin gave the walking wounded jobs, even though they couldn’t work. But with the takeover of operations by Sibanye-Stillwater in June last year, some of those workers worried that they might lose that security. They said that if they had also been killed that day, then at least someone would be taking care of their families.
I went to Marikana because three men asked for help. It is a place I find deeply unsettling and depressing because of the stark juxtapositions. The smell of pigs rolling in the mud that gathers in huge potholes on the gravel road mixes with the fumes rising out of the gigantic furnaces. It reminds me that this isn’t just a depressed shanty town; it’s also one of the most lucrative platinum areas in the world.
The three men are anxious, helpless and feel their new employers are about to make their lives more difficult. In December they were asked to undergo medical tests.
One man was told by his wife that the mine wanted him to report to the hospital for a medical examination or he would no longer be paid a salary. Another was told by the doctor who examined him that Sibanye wanted to find alternative positions for them.
After being told to have medical check-ups, there was no further communication from Sibanye, according to the mineworkers, until they brought in their lawyers.
They believe this is Sibanye’s way of either getting them back to work or kicking them out. Sibanye says this is a misunderstanding.
These men are broken. One still walks with a cane. His left side is not fully responsive and if it gets a bit hot, he has blinding headaches.
The money they got from Lonmin was enough to feed their children and get them to school. It covered the basics. No luxuries. It doesn’t allow them to seek counselling for their trauma.
One of the men speaks painfully about how lighting a matchstick brings back flashes of the guns and bullets fired on August 16. Another is blunter about his injuries, describing the debilitating pain he feels in his groin every day. He adds that he has had to undergo numerous operations. He speaks frankly, feeling no embarrassment.
These men were striking for a R12 500 wage.
Despite Sibanye’s reassurances, the men still believe the mining company will take their jobs away from them, leaving them with nothing because their injuries mean they can no longer work anywhere else.
Sibanye is a creature unlike any other. It is seen as one of the most diverse mining companies in the country. But it is also known for culling jobs when operations are no longer making profits.
In 2016 it was reported that about 1 702 permanent workers at Sibanye’s Cooke 4 mine would be retrenched. In 2018, the company announced that about 5 870 employees and 800 contractors would be retrenched at Beatrix and Driefontein as part of its restructuring of its gold operations. They ended up retrenching 3 450 employees.
When Sibanye arrived in Marikana, in June last year, everyone knew the mining giant would be lowering the staff component there too.
Everyone was on edge, including those who had long-standing agreements with Lonmin.
In September last year Sibanye said 5 270 jobs would be cut. Last week, “restructuring” was completed: 1 612 employees got voluntary separation packages; 53 retired; about 1 140 were retrenched and 1 709 contractors lost their jobs.
The air in Marikana will always be different because life seems cheap to those in power. There is little progress in Marikana. Sibanye today is using excuses of miscommunication and promising to do better by the wounded men. But history has shown that those in power seldom keep their word. As depressing as the
mining town may be we need to constantly go back to hold the likes of Lonmin and Sibanye to their word and ensure that on our watch we did everything we could to avoid another massacre and more suffering, because the government will not do it.
This is why I drove past the pigs rolling in potholes and spent the day talking to men who are still living their trauma.