Defiant miners move wives into hostels

Migrant mineworkers at several Anglo American Corporation-controlled coal mines in the Eastern Transvaal have confronted the migrant labour system head on: they have unilaterally moved their wives or girlfriends into the single-sex hostels.

The move — done in defiance of mine management — is the first such public action following the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) pledge at their recent annual conference to "take control" of the compounds and dismantle the migrant labour system. It creates an acute dilemma for mine management, who has repeatedly stated their opposition to the single-sex compound system but have been accused by the union of dragging their feet in changing it.

Now management will either have to turn a blind eye to the defiance — thus acknowledging that miners have at least partial control of the compounds — or throw the wives out, discrediting their claims to support the concept of mixed hostels. The occupation of the hostels is likely to test Anglo's liberal policy and utterances, according to an NUM representative. The "occupation" of the Anglo American Collieries (Amcoal) mine hostels started last weekend at Landau, Bank, Kriel and Goedehoop Collieries in the Witbank-Middelburg area.

Attempts by senior officials from the Chamber of Mines and mine management to stop the occupation of the hostels have been unsuccessful. Workers have ignored a circular sent to their wives from mine management warning them their presence constitutes trespass. "I would like you to know that I do not condone your presence in the hostel single accommodation as I believe it will lead to complications from other occupants of the hostel," the circular from mine manager AP Bugden warned.

The circular added that the facilities and food provided by the mine were "for our employees only and you will not be treated like a lady". There has been no attempt to stop women from obtaining food from the kitchen, although some workers have been purchasing cooked food from outside the mines.

There were none of the usual security officers or indunas" at the gates and no special "passes" were needed for a Weekly Mail team to proceed into the hostels and into the rooms. The occupation of the hostels will lead to unrestricted movement of visitors into and out of the hostels. The much-resented "indunas", who in the past have rigorously screened every visitor, have either joined the union or have, turned a blind eye to events.

At Landau near Witbank this week several workers and their wives were found watching television in the hostel bar or lounges of their rooms. There have been no reports of violence resulting from the presence of women, despite management's concern about "unpleasant scenes". In the bar, men and women were drinking together and chatting.

The decision to occupy the hostels was taken at a regional meeting of the NUM three weeks ago. Soon after the NUM conference adopted the resolution to dismantle the migratory labour system, Anglo said it was concerned about the detrimental effects of the migrant labour system and the consequent hostel system of accommodation.

Anglo representative Peter Gush said it was the ultimate objective of the company to give employees the opportunity of owning their own homes, and living with their families in a normal society should they so choose. He said the success of such a venture would depend on the availability of land for procurement, the speed of procurement and the provision of infrastructure.

What workers might now be looking for from Anglo is a clear statement on how long it would take them to provide family houses for those of its employees who need it. Other mining houses, fearing the spread of similar action to their mines, might put pressure on the government to provide more land for the building of houses and the abolishing of influx control laws, even where these affect workers from neighbouring countries or the "homelands".

The move is also bound to unify workers around the common issue of being denied the right of a decent family life. Homosexuality and prostitution have flourished in the single-sex hostels. Mineworkers have in the past paid dearly, sometimes with their lives, for the favours of the few women on neighbouring farms and villages.

Yesterday, Amcoal representative Mark Smith admitted that "a small number of employees' wives spent the weekend in the collieries' hostel accommodation." The majority had returned to their homes, he said. Management was presently discussing the issue with union representatives. Until agreement had been reached, "we can't comment further on the issue," Smith said.

NUM representative Marcel Golding said yesterday the occupation is the first step "in the fight to bring an end to the migrant labour system and hostel life". The occupation has been disciplined and co-ordinated and new communal rules governing living arrangements have been established, he said.

It feels human, says miner
For the first time in years, migrant mineworker Judas Ngwenya felt like a human being. Ngwenya, a worker from Lekazi in the kaNgwane "homeland", had moved his young wife into his hostel. "What type of law is it that prevents a man from living with his wife and children?" he asked. For more than 100 years, he said, migrant mineworkers had been made to believe they were not human.

Now he and over 2 000 mineworkers at the Landau Mine have "since realised" that they are human. "It is that realisation that has made me bring my wife into the hostel and live with her like any other human being is allowed to do." But it has not been easy for him to do. Even before his colleagues decided to challenge the "evil migrant labour system", he had brought his wife nearer to his place of employment.

He had just paid a hefty dowry (he would not disclose how much) for his wife, Fikile Mahlaba. He sought and found her employment on a neighbouring farm. He could sleep on the farm, but at his own risk, he said. The farmer would deny he had granted permission for Ngwenya to live with Fikile on his land. On more than one occasion Ngwenya had had to pay a R200 admission of guilt fine after police; raided the farm and found him there. "It is for this reason that when the mine management announced they would not provide food for my wife I felt it was better than the R200 fine."

A Mr Wigley from the Chamber of Mines called a meeting of shaft stewards on Monday last week and asked them to wait for six months before bringing their wives to the mines. Management has accused the stewards of stage-managing the issue and has stated that should any violence erupt on the mine, the blame will be put squarely on the shoulders of the stewards.

Whether the government and mineowners will tell Ngwenya what type of government separates man and wife remains to be seen. But so far, said Ngwenya jokingly, "Since my wife moved in I have never been late for work."– Sefako Nyaka

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