Kumba workers threaten trainees after bail hearing postponed

Striking workers at Kumba Iron Ore's Sishen mine have disrupted training of workers. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Striking workers at Kumba Iron Ore's Sishen mine have disrupted training of workers. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

On Thursday morning striking workers gathered near the Kathu Magistrate's Court in the Northern Cape, singing and dancing in solidarity with 47 workers who were arrested two days earlier and were due to appear in the court in hopes of a bail hearing.

But following brief arguments from both the prosecutor and the defence, the magistrate postponed the bail hearing until October 26.

Upon receiving the news, workers danced and toyi-toyi'd to a nearby lodge, where safety orientation, as a precursor to ramping up production at Sishen mine, was taking place.

While police prevented the crowd of about 200 from entering the premises, some strikers still managed to enter the lodge and retrieve training workers. Once outside the property, strikers crowded and verbally lambasted the trainees before making their way up the main street toward another property but the gates had been locked.

The strike has continued for over two weeks when, on October 3, workers downed tools and held R3.3-billion worth of equipment ransom atop the Sishen mine dump known to them as "the mountain". They refused to relent unless engaged in negotiations around a wage demand of an additional R15 000 in salaries per month and have since caused a stop in production.

Kumba said those involved earned up to R31 000 a month, but striking workers said it was well below R10 000 for most of them.

They did however, benefit from an employee empowerment scheme last year which paid out up to R570 000, before a 40% tax, to its long standing workers

At 4am on Tuesday, police and private security moved in and arrested 47 mineworkers at the dump. A day later two other men were apprehended when found with petrol bombs in their vehicle.

The arrests, which also resulted in seven strikers being admitted to the local hospital, has incited the disgruntled workers further.

In the morning, strikers and supporters of the arrestees gathered across the road from the court, some holding placards as a chopper circles the area.

"We only want our brothers and our sisters and our R15 000," said one such placard.

Inside the court the family of the accused were crammed inside the benches. Even so, not all could fit in and waited outside.

One woman said her husband was one of those appearing but maintained he had not been involved in the strike action, but arrested further afield. "He is innocent but in there [the holding cells], while the guilty ones are out here," she said wiping a tear away.

Soon the 47, including two women, filed into the small room. Many of them were wearing their blue Kumba overalls. One older man, in the same overalls, had bandages strapped across his nose.

The prosecutor asked for the bail hearing to be postponed considering the case is a serious matter and should rather be heard at a regional court.

He also said the state had not had time to verify the addresses of the accused.

The defence first noted the accused should not have been held for more than 48 hours without being charged, yet it was already 52 hours later.

He said the accused are also entitled to a bail hearing in the first appearance of court and there was no reason why the addresses of the accused had not been verified considering "they were arrested at the place of their employment where these details were being held."

To not grant bail would mean "not only the accused, but their dependents would suffer". In any case "none of these charges will stand," the defence claimed.

The court postponed the hearing noting that it did not have enough information on the severity of the crimes to even decide what bail fees to impose. It also concluded two days was not enough time to verify places of residence for all the accused as this needed to be done physically and not simply on paper.

After the arrestees disappeared back down to the holding cells below, the two men accused of possessing petrol bombs were also subject to a hearing and soon granted bail of R800.

Mothers and wives who had attended said they were very saddened. "It is so painful," one woman said.

Another said she worried about a cut under her husband's eyebrow which resulted from a rubber bullet smashing through his spectacles and was also concerned about what may happen to him in police custody for the next seven days

 Gert Schoeman, spokesperson for the company, said the group must have consisted largely of dismissed employees, who did not show up for disciplinary hearings during the strike.

"Shifts have started and we are quite happy with the turn out," he said.

Production is expected to begin again on Saturday.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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