The violent strike action at Lonmin's Marikana mine in North West that culminated in 44 deaths is not an isolated incident but rather the latest – and deadliest – occurrence as a cocktail of discontent has played out at major mines across the Bushveld complex.
The allure of the platinum province has drawn in thousands of migrants, but instead of finding economic opportunities the burgeoning communities have poor service delivery and unemployment rates in excess of the national average.
Tension has been exacerbated by union rivalry and job demands from locals. Consultation between residents, the government and mine managers has been poor as frustration and violence has increased.
All these factors are underpinned by rapid urbanisation, for which municipalities and mines are unable to plan. Rustenburg, the epicentre of the platinum belt, is reportedly the fastest-growing city on the continent. Mining activities are responsible for 75% of its growth.
"Marikana had not been the most violent or most likely to erupt in violence [prior to the deaths]," said Songezo Zibi, spokesperson for mining company Xstrata.
Before Marikana, mining operations in Limpopo had experienced far more volatile protest action. Xstrata experienced a period of violent protests over the employment of locals and local procurement at its Lion 2 smelter in Limpopo.
During strikes in Steelpoort, the mayor's house was burned to the ground and 79 people were arrested. Last year a mineworker was stoned to death by protesters. No major mines in the area were spared from similar unrest. In 2011, Zibi said, Rustenburg began to follow that trend.
Strong economic basis
Xstrata was first hit with wage strikes from the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) in which buildings and vehicles were burned and protesters clashed with police. "It was possibly the worst strike action we have ever experienced," Zibi said.
A six-week strike followed at Impala Platinum. "The violence at Impala was a step up from what we saw," he said.
And now Lonmin. "People ask where the violence comes from, but it has been happening for a while."
With such a strong economic basis, Rustenburg is regarded as having many job opportunities.
"One of the biggest problems we have is the population explosion," said Peter Manzana, communications manager at Rustenburg municipality. "People come here to the mines looking for jobs and it has stretched our resources and is the cause of some of our social ills."
Protests have consumed the Marikana area since August last year and local communities have been speaking out against unemployment in the area. Earlier this year an angry mob in the nearby Bapong community burned a local post office and also set a truck alight. Some media reported protesters had accused Lonmin of not employing enough locals.
It has been widely reported that the conflict at Lonmin's Marikana mine centres around a power struggle between the National Union of Mineworkers and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. But unions may also be up against the community.
"The National Union of Mineworkers discourages this kind of discrimination. They maintain all South Africans should have access to jobs," Zibi said, "and it doesn't fly with the community."
According to Statistics South Africa's labour force survey for the second quarter of 2012, North West accounts for 35% of all mining jobs in South Africa and almost 1% of total jobs in the country's labour market. Mining contributes more than a third of the province's gross domestic product and it is responsible for 94% of South Africa's platinum production, 46% of the granite and 25% of the gold.
This week it was announced that national GDP grew by 3.2% in the second quarter of 2012, owed largely to an increased output, up by 31.2%, in the mining sector.
However, Stats SA last reported the unemployment rate for the province was 26.2%, making it one of six provinces with a rate above the national average of 24.9%.
"The lack of sufficient suitable land for development (Rustenburg municipality owns only 4% of land in the area) supported by insufficient bulk infrastructure, together with mining activities sterilising huge portions of land for development, are identified as major contributors towards the community's socioeconomic welfare," Jan Casper Pieters, director of planning and human settlement for Rustenburg municipality, told the Mail & Guardian. "Illegal occupation of land by work seekers is not assisting attempts to eradicate informal settlements."
The Bench Marks Foundation's 2011 report noted a general failure of local government with no consultation between mines and the community.
But Pieters said the municipality had created various platforms for collaborations with mines, which had created opportunities for housing delivery in certain areas. Recent interaction set the tone for pockets of land to be transferred to the municipality for development.
The municipality entered into a memorandum of understanding with an external company in 2002 to look after housing delivery in the Marikana area and proposed to develop in the order of 15 000 houses over a 10-year period. But mining restrictions and environmental sensitive areas have hampered the project. "Lonmin objected to the process of township establishment as it will continue with mining activities in a large area, which will negatively impact on the socioeconomic well-being of the community. The process of development could not be continued," Pieters said.
The spokesperson for Lonmin, Sue Vey, said there was a recommendation radius around any mining activity (for noise pollution or blasting) that is considered unsafe for the building of houses.
"The area indicated by the municipality was within this no-go area and Lonmin recommended they not consider housing there. Lonmin was very keen to participate in this community upliftment, but not in that area because of the hazards."
Manzana told the M&G that discussions were ongoing.
Vey said the company had new accommodation plans for its workforce, including new flats for families and converting its hostels into about 2800 units by 2014.
"By the end of the calendar year, we would have completed 84 of the total of 128 hostel blocks, slightly ahead of programme," said Vey.
In terms of the surrounding informal settlements, Lonmin said it was upgrading sanitation, water reticulation, roads and waste disposal in partnership with local municipalities.
The director for local economic development at Rustenburg municipality, Jacky Kola, said the local government had engaged with mining houses and development plans included an artisans college, two clinics, 5500 new houses and the training of 85 small to medium enterprises.
Marikana was declared as one of three restructuring zones in the Rustenburg area and spatial, social and economic restructuring will be considered. Pieters said projects for housing development and the upgrading of the central business district by the municipality and the private sector have been identified.
Developments in the central business district include a new shopping complex, new supermarket and new mall with a total value of R42-million.
Support from Lonmin to upgrade the clinic has been concluded and the municipality has undertaken the upgrading of the library, community hall and fire station.