/ 9 September 2011

Attacks on refinery workers ‘ignored’

Workers at Lonmin’s Western Platinum refinery in Brakpan have complained that its management has done nothing to stop the abduction, torture and shooting of its employees in East Rand townships.

The Mail & Guardian visited the refinery this week and interviewed victims and other Lonmin employees.

Company sources confirmed that the attacks, which began in 2002, occurred across the East Rand. The perpetrators wore police uniforms or balaclavas and demanded platinum or money. Their victims included cleaners, senior security officers and laboratory analysts.

Sources said that the refinery had been plagued by platinum theft in recent years and that the Johannesburg central police organised crime unit had been investigating this.

Mfundiso Cawe (35), a cleaner at the refinery, said that a fortnight ago a gang, apparently searching for platinum, trashed his Wattville house. He was not there, but a message was left saying that [police chief] “Bheki Cele’s boys were looking for me”.

In January last year, four men wearing community policing forum balaclavas came to his house demanding platinum and money. When he did not give them what they wanted, they shot him, he said.

“I tried to block the bullet with my bare hands. The second bullet hit me in the stomach,” Cawe said.

He no longer sleeps at home and uses private transport to get to and from work.

Other sources at Western Plat­inum said Lonmin management had known of the attacks for at least two years but had apparently not taken action.

The M&G has seen email correspondence dating from November 2009 between Lonmin’s security head, Kevin van Zyl, and a group of concerned employees, union representatives and department heads.

The initial email by an employee appeals to Lonmin management stop the attacks: “If this was happening to senior management of this company would we have the same silence?” it asks. “I think, as a company, we need to go to the bottom of this.”

Van Zyl responded that he would pass the matter on to Lonmin’s legal department and recommended that it also be referred to the police Independent Complaints Directorate. “I ensure [sic] you that I shall do my best to assist our employees,” he said.

John Mukhabele, a refinery security officer, said that on December 14 last year he was attacked at his Springs home by men posing as police, who handcuffed him and took him to a garage in Tembisa. There they burned his feet with a hot iron and applied electric shocks to his genitals and stomach. Early the following morning they dumped him in the veld. Mukhabele said he had laid a charge at the Springs police station but no arrests had been made.

He said he also reported the attack to Van Zyl, who “laughed at me in disbelief”.

Van Zyl declined to comment, saying that only the communications department could speak for the company.

Lonmin spokesperson Tanya Chikanza said the alleged attacks occurred off company premises, which made it “challenging” to ensure the security of employees.

Chikanza said the company was providing workers with guidance on how to improve their personal security and collaborating with the authorities to identify the perpetrators of violence. Charges had also been laid at the Springs police station.