/ 2 November 2012

Abandoned miners left in limbo

Comet Village residents
Comet Village residents

Three generations have lived on stand R402 Driefontein, near the East Rand Mall, in Johannesburg, Gauteng. Their relatives are buried in a small cemetery just behind their houses, but the future is uncertain for this community of former miners.

The area, called Comet Village by its residents, consists of 105 houses that used to be the married quarters for East Rand Proprietary Mines employees and is the subject of a land dispute. The former miners, who were laid off when the struggling mine was liquidated in 1999, want the deeds to their homes in compensation for not having received severance packages.

The occupants of at least five houses now face eviction for outstanding rent and the community could see further rent increases next year, when their present rental agreement with private company Living Africa Properties expires.

Comet Village has an unusual history, which has placed the community in a difficult position because neither the municipality nor the owner of the mine, DRDGold, is willing to take responsibility for the community.

Ekurhuleni municipality insists it has no jurisdiction over the community, who live on private land, and DRDGold, which acquired its interest in the mine in November 2002, said it was not responsible for undertakings made by the companies that originally bought the mine in 2000.

This is despite the fact that the chairperson of Khumo Bathong Holdings, Paseka Ncholo, who bought the mine with German industrialist Claas Daun, sits on the board of Durban Roodepoort Deep.

Ncholo had planned to buy the liquidated East Rand Proprietary Mines with Durban Roodepoort Deep, which was then run by Roger Kebble and his son, Brett Kebble. But Ncholo was allegedly told a few days before he was due to pay for the mine that the Kebbles faced their own financial battles and could not back him. He approached Daun to provide the working capital.

Severance packages
The Comet Village community had hoped that ownership of the houses would be handed over to former mine employees who had been laid off without severance packages, or bought on their behalf by the Ekurhuleni municipality. Their hopes were dashed in September last year when they were informed that the stand was being sold to Living Africa Properties, from which they would now be renting their properties.

Clarence Ntikinca, a resident and member of the Ward 33 committee, said the community felt betrayed by the municipality and the mine, because promises made to the community had not been honoured.

Ntikinca said when the mine was liquidated management and human resources managers gave the retrenched miners an undertaking that they would be compensated once the assets had been sold. Instead, 2 500 of the 5 000 miners were re-employed and the remainder received no compensation.

The sale agreement for the century -old mine saw the new buyers taking on the assets but not the liabilities, which the government scrambled to find a buyer for after it was liquidated in 1999.

East Rand Proprietary Mines had been experiencing financial difficulties for years before its closure and was bailed out repeatedly by the state in the decade before its liquidation.

Community development projects
Ntikinca said: "The community is getting old now. Many of us are pensioners and we do not have time any more to put aside money to build houses somewhere else. We have wasted years waiting for a decision to be made about the land."

Documents in possession of the Mail & Guardian show that discussions were held between the community and Ekurhuleni municipality from 2009 about the latter purchasing the land from Durban Roodepoort Deep and developing it. The community was under the impression that deeds to the houses would eventually be handed over to the present tenants.

Ntikinca said the community had been disadvantaged by living on land viewed by the municipality as being private property: "We received no services from the municipality and have not been considered for any poverty alleviation or community development projects."  

Roads in the village have potholes and the houses and infrastructure have not been maintained. Some of the houses are believed to have been built in 1922 and need repairs.

New Comet Primary School, built in 1938, is now operating as a private crèche. The school was closed in 2000 and pupils moved to a school in Boksburg North.

"The school was closed when the mine went into liquidation because it was a mine-run school. Now the children have to walk 15km through undeveloped land and bush to get to school, when we had a perfectly good school in the village," said Ntikinca.

"This land should have been handed over to Ekurhuleni when the mine went into liquidation.

"That way, the schools and the houses and roads on this land could have been maintained."

Ekurhuleni municipality said it had approached Living Africa Properties to buy the land on which Comet Village is situated.

Feasibility studies, which include an environmental impact assessment and a heritage study, are being conducted by a team appointed by the Gauteng government.

Ekurhuleni municipality spokesperson Sam Modiba said: "Once the environmental impact assessment process has been completed, the municipality will do valuations and make an offer to the land owners [Living Africa Properties]."

But until the municipality purchases the land, the owners will be entitled to operate "as they see fit".

The original offer to buy the land from DRDGold fell through because of delays with the heritage study. Some of the buildings were designed by architect Sir Herbert Baker.

Community members, who have seen an early draft of the municipality's development plan, which was also shown to M&G, are concerned that some residents' homes are being targeted for demolition.

A source close to the project said it was possible that the exterior of those houses would be maintained, but the interiors would have to be gutted and rebuilt. The community said it wanted a government official to explain exactly what was planned with the houses.

Living Africa Properties has faced opposition from the community since it purchased the land in February. A month after the sale, the police were called in to intervene after angry residents refused to allow construction workers on the property, saying they were still in negotiations with the municipality.

In the last nine months the company has installed electricity meters and issued eviction notices to the occupants of five houses, which has further angered the community, who question why a private company was brought in to install the meters. They question the rates they are paying for electricity. Residents are due to go to court on November 13 to challenge their eviction.

Resident Thomas Kashe said the community was taken by surprise when they were informed towards the end of last year that the land had been sold to Living Africa Properties. "We still thought that negotiations were taking place between the government and [the mine] about buying the land. We had no idea until that point that [the mine] was looking to sell the land to someone else."

Graham Ranson, speaking on behalf of Living Africa Properties, said the company was trying to address infrastructure problems caused by years of neglect. This included the upgrading of old water pipes, plumbing and the building of a main road into Comet Village.

Ekurhuleni municipality will not repair or build roads on the property, insisting that it is private land.

"We see the land as an investment and we are looking to cover our costs at the moment rather than looking to make a profit. If we can bring in rent and cover water and electricity costs, we would be satisfied," said Ranson.

Dommunity involvement
The community is divided about whether to deal with Living Africa Properties, which has led to a breakaway group linked to the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco).

This, according to Ranson, has created problems for his company. "We are more than willing to engage the community, because without community involvement the project will not work, but it has become very difficult because the two groups have different views and demands and one claims the other group does not speak for the greater community."

DRDGold spokesperson James Duncan said Durban Roodepoort Deep, which acquired its interest in East Rand Proprietary Mines in November 2002, was not involved in negotiations with the government or employees when the mine was liquidated.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, then minerals and energy minister, said in 2 000 when announcing the reopening of East Rand Proprietary Mines that Khumo Bathong and Daun had been selected as preferred bidders because they had satisfied a number of criteria, which included undertakings to re-employ workers and accept responsibility for the rehabilitation of the mining area.

"DRDGold was not part of the picture in 2000 when these undertakings were given, but it has executed its environmental obligations in terms of [the mine] in accordance with the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act," Duncan said.

He was responding to concerns voiced by the community that the mine had problems with acid mine drainage, which could have an impact on the community's water supply should the area flood.

Duncan said East Rand Proprietary Mines was regularly inspected by the department of mineral resources and had been found to be compliant.

With regard to the mine's responsibility to Comet Village residents, Duncan said section 44 of the Act provided that housing estates such as Comet "which can be used after mine closure can be excluded from rehabilitation". He said the mine was closed in 2008 and because the management of housing was not DRDGold's core business, the property was sold.

Sanco, which has assisted Comet Village residents, wants to set up a committee with representatives from informal settlements surrounding Comet to lobby the Ekurhuleni municipality to improve the living conditions.