/ 10 April 2014

Miners dig deep as strike wears on

Maobi Ntombeni asked relatives to sell goats so that he could survive.
Maobi Ntombeni asked relatives to sell goats so that he could survive.

Forty-one-year-old John Smock says he owes R4 650 to clothing shops in Rustenburg and has a loan of R50 000 from Standard Bank for his home in Taung. He also has a personal loan of R60 000 from Absa.

Smock, a small man but well built, is a truck driver at Impala Platinum’s Shaft 16, and like most of the men in the Kanana informal settlement near Rustenburg, he has been on strike for the past three months.

Workers affiliated to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) at Lonmin, Impala and Anglo American Platinum mines in Rustenburg and Northam in Limpopo stopped working on January 23. They are demanding a basic salary of R12 500.

The three employers have offered a 9% increase, which the workers have rejected. Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa has repeatedly said an increase to R12 500 a month should be spread over four years. The companies have thus far refused, saying they cannot afford the increase.

Inside Kanana, the dusty streets have no names. Smock’s four-room house is about 400m from the main R510 route to Rustenburg. I knock on the front door and introduce myself. He offers me a wooden chair and starts to tell me how the strike has affected his life.

Distrustful of unions
He is no longer a member of any union and does not trust them. The father of three says he would like to return to work, but is afraid because of intimidation from the strikers.

He also sells vegetables, but his Isuzu bakkie was stolen recently, and later found stripped of parts in Kanana’s Extension 13. He reckons it is going to cost him about R1 000 to tow it home.

He complains that at Amcu meetings workers are not given a chance to comment.

“We are [given only] feedback by union bosses. I used to be a member of the NUM [the National Union of Mineworkers], Amcu and Uasa [the United Association of South Africa], but none of the unions benefited me in any way, and I decided to remain non-unionised.”

Kanana’s John Smock says the miners are not allowed to comment at Amcu meetings and
that he now distrusts unions.

Smock began working at the mine in 1986, and has seen a lot of strikes, but none compares with this year’s.

“The situation is dire, and it doesn’t look like it is going to get ­better any time soon. I have the ­feeling that management is entertaining the Amcu strike,” he says. “It is not the first time we find ourselves in this situation. The people who are pro-strike are few compared to the ones who want to go back to work.”

Sprawl of shacks
Kanana is a sprawl of shacks. In Extension 14, I meet Maobi Ntombeni, a 51-year-old rock driller, sitting in a chair and leaning back against the wall of his one-room shack. His yard has no fence and is surrounded by tall, withered grass.

Power comes from RDP houses in Boitekong Extension 13, the settlement over the road. Live electricity wires snake across the tar, into the grass, and then to the shacks. 

Ntombeni tells me he comes from Mthombo near Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, and has worked on the mines since 1977, first in a gold mine in Carletonville.

When he started to run out of money, he asked his relatives in the Eastern Cape to sell a few goats and send him money “to survive”.

He is determined to remain on strike “until December, or next year”.

“We are going to hold on to our fight until we get what we want. If we were to accept the 9% offered by management and go back to work, it would mean we were not serious over the past two months.”

Sanguine outlook
He appears sanguine about talk that the mines will shut some shafts because they are not economically viable. “They have closed some in the past, and management threatened to retrench miners last year, but we went on strike to protest against the move until those who faced the chop were transferred to other shafts.”

A bespectacled 61-year-old Mmabo Mmamotsatsi runs a crèche for about 250 children in Kanana. The former teacher sits inside her office, a pen in her hand as she goes through some papers. Pictures of pupils and certificates of achievements hang on the wall.

Mmabo Mmamotsatsi has resorted to using her pension to buy food for her daycare
centre in Kanana, as many parents cannot afford the monthly payments.

She says about 20 parents are not going to be able to pay the monthly fee of R240 until the strike ends. She is now using her pension to buy food for the children. Two children have been sent home to the Eastern Cape by their parents and one to Limpopo because “the parents couldn’t stand going hungry with their children”.

Many of the people I speak to mention the petrol bombing of a shack in Mfidikwe village outside Rustenburg last week, after the owner was spotted reporting for work at Impala.

In Marikana, 31km away, it seems the strike is all anyone speaks about.

Stress headaches
A group of six men sit near the mine hostel. Some are busy playing morabaraba. One worker, speaking in Sesotho, tells how he went to the Andrew Saffy mine hospital, complaining of a terrible headache.

“The nurse told me that I was thinking too much about the negative impact of the strike on my life and that my stress could be because of sleepless nights. I had to agree with the nurse because, honestly, I don’t sleep at night. I am worried about how I am going to solve my problems if the strike continues for the third month.”

The strike has left miners in Rustenburg’s Kanana township destitute. (Photos: Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

He says African Bank has started to call him to remind him that his loan repayments are overdue.

“On Friday, I made a plan to get at least R300, which I shared among the three companies I owe. I went to pay R100 at Ellerines. The woman who helped me said the furniture store was also facing financial trouble because of customers working in the mines who are defaulting on their payments. She showed me a list of 20 people who she said had not paid in two months.”

He is also behind on his son’s school fees.

Sole breadwinner
At the other end of the settlement, I find Edward Lesejane sitting on a rock in the veld. The father of three tells me that he is stressed because he is his family’s sole breadwinner. He says he can’t wait for the strike to end, as each of his children has to be transported to school and he doesn’t have the money to pay for it.

“I have been borrowing from the people I know, but if the strike continues for a third month, I don’t think they will lend me any more money. They should allow us to work and while we are working our leaders should continue to negotiate. At least they should demand R10 500.

“You can’t raise [such] views in our meetings, because we fear for our lives. We are given only feedback, not the chance to express our views.”

Rustenburg municipality’s spokesperson Thapelo Matebesi says small businesses are feeling the pinch, and miners are defaulting on furniture and car repayments, and utility bills.

“It doesn’t mean that the local economy has collapsed. But unpleasant, negative consequences will be felt if the strike goes on for months. We remain positive that it will come to an end.”