Platinum belt’s social ills fuel unrest

This is according to a comprehensive report released this week.

Based on five years of research among communities in the platinum belt, the report by the Bench Marks Foundation highlights the gaps between mining companies' promises and their practices on the ground.

It notes that the Mining Charter's target of employing 10% of women in the mining industry is "highly problematic" because "women in the lowest-paid categories make up an insignificant minority in each shift. With 10 women out of every 100 workers this imbalance creates the conditions for sexual harassment and exploitation."

Lonmin Platinum, the centre of violent clashes between two rival unions this week, subcontracts up to a third of its jobs to outsiders, the report says.

"Other disadvantages include a lack of facilities especially designed for catering for the needs of women. Women are expected to undress in front of male staff and workers during health and heat tests, and women find themselves the objects of sexual ridicule and groping during first aid and disaster exercises."

The platinum belt has the third-highest HIV/Aids prevalence of all districts in South Africa, but the companies have failed to stem "a lot of transactional sex going on underground towards the end of the month. Women sell sex to supplement their incomes. Everywhere you go underground you find used condoms lying around," said a human resources officer.

Week of upheaval
A female geologist spoke about her fears of working underground: "I walk with a knife in my pocket everywhere I go on the mine; women are not safe here."

John Capel, executive director of the foundation, told the Mail & Guardian it is a coincidence that the 150-page report on platinum mining in the Bojanala district was released in a week of upheaval at Lonmin's Marikana mine. "The violence is partly caused by union rivalry, but the bigger social ills that have been brought in by mining are erupting here," he said. "Companies have made many false promises and there is huge community resentment as a result."

Other problems include high youth discontent, a lack of educational facilities and training, environmental pollution and the dismissal of 9 000 workers by Lonmin in May last year. "These workers participated in Lonmin's housing scheme and would have lost their houses, exacerbating tensions," Capel said.

After hostel accommodation was scaled down and a "living-out allowance" was introduced, many mineworkers have rented shacks in informal settlements and live in appalling conditions. "In Marikana there are broken sewage systems, bilharzia in the water, children are getting sick and this all leads to tension in the communities," he said.


Broken township
Bench Marks researchers who visited a section of the Marikana township constructed by Lonmin reported that it did not have electricity for more than a month, and at a nearby RDP township broken drains were spilling into a river.

"Residents informed the team that they have been reporting the matter to the local government and Lonmin for five years now and it still remains unaddressed," says the report.

Lonmin is one of six platinum belt mining companies that, according to the report, failed to meet their social, economic and environmental commitments within the framework of global corporate social responsibility.

A multimillion-rand hydroponics project started by the mining company as a corporate social responsibility showcase had been abandoned, costing about 120 people their jobs, and a Lonmin-supported school in Marikana included classrooms built with asbestos.

Lonmin answered a questionnaire for the research by Bench Marks, but has not commented on the report and did not returns calls from the M&G.

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Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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