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Miners demand more equitable share

Impoverished and angry South Africans held a marathon march across a platinum-rich corner of the country on Friday to demand that a multinational mining company share more wealth.

“They are making millions here, but the community around is getting nothing,” said 21-year-old Olebogeng Tseleng, who rose at 5am for a march that later started in her village of tin shacks and modest brick or cement homes, none with indoor plumbing.

From Matlou, about 75km north west of Johannesburg, the march picked up more protesters in a series of villages strung between a line of low, rocky hills to the west and a giant platinum mine to the east owned by the multinational company Xstrata.

At each stop, there were speeches. The protest also was delayed by occasional outbursts of tyre-burning and rock-throwing. But it was generally peaceful, unlike protests a day earlier in the nearby town of Rustenburg prompted by a mass layoff at another mine after a strike for higher wages was declared illegal.

Rustenburg was relatively calm on Friday, a day after out-of-work miners looted stores and attacked miners lucky enough to have work. Police said one miner was killed and another seriously injured in Rustenburg.

A restive labour force and the demands of communities like Matlou are among the many challenges facing the mining industry in South Africa. The industry has been weakened by decades of under investment and a debate over nationalisation and other policy questions have created uncertainty that has spooked potential investors.

On Friday, the villagers of Matlou and its neighbours took five hours to march about 20km to the gates of an Xstrata platinum mine that is being transformed from a strip to an underground operation. There, they presented demands that included putting more locals to work at the mine. But they don’t just want jobs. They say Xstrata should be building schools and roads, and offering scholarships to promising young students.

“They fail us,” said John Modiselle, a community leader who said he had been bringing concerns to Xstrata for years.

Xstrata spokesperson Songezo Zibi said he understood the impatience and frustration of villagers in a country with high rates of unemployment and poverty. But he said addressing South Africa’s inequalities would take time, and that mining companies could do only so much.

Specialised workers were needed to complete the shafts at the mine near Matlou, Zibi said. He said Xstrata could either train locals to do the work, slowing construction, or bring in outsiders with the right skills to get the job done quickly so the mine can start operating. Once mining starts, expected in 2016, many of the 3 000 people it will employ will come from the area, he said.

Xstrata had built a clinic and other community projects in the region, and will do more once it starts making a profit at the mine, Zibi said.

In a speech earlier this month, Mining Minister Susan Shabangu said mining companies would not be the target of so much anger if they had done more since apartheid ended in 1994 to ensure black South Africans benefited from mining. The black majority was long nothing more than the low-paid labour for the country’s mining industry.

Jonathan Snyman, a researcher at the South African Institute of Race Relations, said Shabangu has a point. But he said the debate over how to change the legacy of apartheid featured too much militant rhetoric from unions. He said a less fractious relationship between management and labour — and fewer strikes — would reassure potential foreign investors who have the money to help modernise South Africa’s troubled mining industry.

Shabangu, the mining minister, says nationalisation is not on her government’s agenda.

But Tseleng, among Friday’s marchers, said turning mines over to the government might be a way to ensure the wealth was fairly shared.

“If they implement it and it fails, then they can find another solution,” she said.

Tseleng said she and most of her neighbours are unemployed. She went to a well-regarded high school that Catholic nuns established in her village, then couldn’t afford to go on to university. But mining executives prosper, she said.

“They don’t want to uplift lives,” she said. “They just want to take money.” — Sapa-AP

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