/ 15 April 2011

Aurora’s Mandela Jnr in Parliament dock

As a picture of Marius Ferreira, an Aurora Empowerment Systems employee, flashed on to an overhead screen, committee room M46 in Parliament went quiet. The voice of Gideon du Plessis of Solidarity echoed in the silence as he told a meeting of the portfolio committee on mineral resources of Ferreira’s recent suicide.

Next to his picture was one of his grief-stricken wife, Susan. Left with nothing, she survives on food parcels donated by the union.

Gideon described how Ferreira joined Aurora in April 2009 when the inexperienced but politically connected BEE firm took over the care and maintenance of the Grootvlei and Orkney mines, formerly owned by Pamodzi, which is in the process of being liquidated.

When Aurora struggled to find funding to secure a purchase of the operations, the protracted and bitter provisional liquidation process began, leaving workers desperate, bills mounting and environmental degradation in its wake.

“He was earning R12 841 a month as a fitter,” Du Plessis told the committee. “After a few months Aurora came to him and said ‘you either leave today or work for R60 a day’.

“Marius had to work 30 days of the month to earn R1 800 a month … But the irony is [Aurora] did not pay him his R60 a day. He lost his house. He lost his car. He lost his furniture. All [his] policies, everything he had.

“Eventually he lost his dignity. And he committed suicide two weeks ago by drinking ant poison.”

The quiet was quickly replaced with gasps and whistles as pictures of the hostels, where desperate mine workers with nowhere to go still live, were shown. Photographs of toilets and showers steeped in filth drew mutters from shocked MPs.

Stripped infrastructure
Shots of mines stripped of their infrastructure followed. Du Plessis explained how formerly working mine shafts, stripped of all their head gear, lay bare, dropping 400m into the ground — easily accessible to passersby and children who live in a nearby informal settlement.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Solidarity said they no longer have faith in the promises of Aurora, the directors of which include president Jacob Zuma’s nephew, Khulubuse Zuma, and a grandson of Nelson Mandela, Zondwa Mandela.

Mandela and fellow Aurora representative Thulani Ngubani faced a hostile bench of parliamentarians. They included members from the labour portfolio committee, as well as unsympathetic officials from the departments of labour and mineral resources, alongside the furious unions.

Solidarity estimates that around R12-million in wages is still outstanding, including deductions made from workers’ salaries but allegedly never paid to the South African Revenue Service or the Unemployment Insurance Fund. It also accounts for outstanding leave pay and wages still owed to workers for March last year.

Solidarity and NUM have become so suspicious of the extended liquidation process of Pamodzi that they have requested lead liquidator Enver Motala’s removal from the case.

In a dark blue suit, Mandela listened attentively but glanced down occasionally at his iPad in preparation for Aurora’s presentation. When he spoke he said the company had struggled to find investors after its Malaysian backers pulled out in 2009. In addition the cost of pumping underground water, particularly from the barely functioning Grootvlei, had negatively affected the company’s cash flow.

The cost of pumping water was R6-million a month, he said. The company had received a government subsidy but when the state cancelled it the cash flow problems intensified. Later in the hearings, however, the department of mineral resources slammed Mandela’s assertion that Aurora was entitled to this money, saying only fully operating mines on the verge of crisis were entitled to the subsidy.

Ngubani who followed Mandela, claimed Aurora had paid all the money owed to NUM members at Grootvlei and to 80% of workers at Orkney. Payments were being made through the department of labour, in terms of a compliance order granted last year forcing Aurora to pay wages.

The department of labour, however, noted at the hearing that under law it could intervene on behalf of only 1 238 workers who earned less than R149 575 a year. Their outstanding pay totalled R2-million.

Acting under law
Motala, last to speak, launched into a vigorous defence of how he and the joint provisional liquidators were acting under law in the interests of the major secured creditors to the Pamodzi group.

The entities that stood to lose the most in the liquidation are the Industrial Development Corporation, exposed to more than R200-million in the Orkney operations, and European bank UniCredit, which has an exposure of R1-billion in the Eastrand operations.

“Joint provisional liquidators are not a law unto themselves. If they don’t take instructions from the major secured creditors they could be in breach of their fiduciary duties,” said Motala.

“At all times we have to brief the major secured creditors, who have security over the assets. It’s their assets.”

He pointed out that the team of joint provisional liquidators included representatives nominated by the unions.

“No one liquidator can make a decision on his own,” he said. He dismissed out of hand Aurora Empowerment Systems was being favoured in any way.

Chinese firm Shandong Gold is Aurora’s latest suitor, with $100-million (R700-million) ready to invest, subject to the completion of a due diligence, shareholder approval and the approval of China’s state council.

The return date for Parliament has been set for June, when MPs will have the chance to quiz the parties involved.

The DA’s labour spokesperson, Ian Ollis, said after the sitting that there are clear indications that many employees were not covered by the labour department’s interventions. “What happened to their money?” he asked.

There was confusion too about the stripped down shafts. Was the old, unwanted metal and machinery sold to pay for the upkeep of the mines? Or was this a wholesale sell-off of working equipment that technically still belongs to Pamodzi?
The questions of reclamation also had to be addressed, said Ollis.

Meanwhile, Khulubuse Zuma has pledged R1-million to the ANC ahead of the municipal elections. But NUM has publicly pleaded with the ANC to give the money to Aurora’s stricken employees.
This week ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza said that when people make contributions to the ANC “we don’t look at the company’s disputes”.

He said people have access to recourse in this country and the party could not mediate in these matter.

“The ANC has not had a discussion about giving the money back. We don’t want to be drawn into this issue,” he said.

“The aggrieved parties have taken steps to raise the matter with the relevant authorities.”

It would seem that for Ferreira, waiting for legal recourse became too much.