A shy-looking girl (16), carrying her schoolbag over her shoulder, is among hundreds of pupils streaming out of the Rakgatla High School in Wonderkop, near Marikana, as a siren signals the end of the day.
She walks towards a school bus outside the gate. Some pupils get on. The bus, provided by Lonmin, will stop at neighbouring villages such as Segwaelane, Tornado, Mooinooi, Bapong, Majakaneng and the Bob Mine informal settlement.
Next to Rakgatla, on the other side of a wire fence, is Tlhapi Moruwe Intermediate School. These children also get on the bus. There are now 56 pupils. The shy girl gets off at the bus stop in Segwaelane, the first village. Her parents are not at home.
“These days I am scared to go to school,” she tells me. “Last week I was approached by three men at the bus pick-up point. They told me that they would burn our house because one of the tenants at home was seen reporting for duty [at the mine].”
She says her parents can’t afford to buy her sanitary towels. “They don’t have money, since the strike started. I cut off a piece of cloth from old clothes, which I use.”
Most pupils say they will not be having any supper tonight. Their parents, mostly mineworkers, have been on strike since January 23, and many have no money left.
Ezile Makwai (13), a talkative grade six pupil at Tlhapi Moruwe, lives with her father and two siblings in the Tornado village. When a boy in the bus says he uses Sunlight soap to brush his teeth because his parents can’t afford to buy toothpaste, Ezile quickly nods. Her dad has not been able to afford to buy her “meat and pizza”, she says glumly.
Her father, Makhwenkonke Ndawana, is sitting outside their windowless rusty shack, which is riddled with holes. His beard is grey; he has worked at Lonmin for 19 years as a winch operator.
He does whatever he can “to survive” with his three daughters. He just gets by with some savings he made before the strike.
Skinny grade eight pupil Anovuyo Mteto (12) lives with her parents at Bob Mine. “I won’t eat anything tonight because there is no food at home. I will only eat breakfast of instant porridge tomorrow at school.” She lists the food she dreams of: rice, cheese, atchar and wors.
The deputy principal of Tlhapi Marue school, Obakeng Mahlangu, shows off pictures of pupils and teachers posing with certificates and trophies. He says some parents took their children to the Eastern Cape and Lesotho during the Easter holidays but never brought them back. Some migrant workers have also left, he adds, leaving their children with neighbours.
“These children don’t have food at home; we can see that they really depend on the meal they get from the school. We are sympathetic to everyone but things can’t continue like these,” he laments.
“The striking parents have gone without salaries for four months,” he says, using both hands to emphasise the point.
Seipati Mmekwa (42) has started feeding hungry people near the Wonderkop clinic, a short walk from the school. Mineworker Avela Khompela (38) says he has walked 5km to get here for a plate of food, and must now rush back after hearing that Gift of the Givers are handing out paraffin and food parcels.
Mmekwa says she started feeding people last month after she saw a woman faint outside the clinic, because she had spent three days there without food.
She feeds more than 200 people with pap, potatoes and cabbage every day. She uses money her husband received after he resigned from Lonmin last October, but is worried it might run out.
A mother of three children, Mmekwa has another 10 staying with her, but her heart bleeds for those starved by the marathon strike.
Rapula Moatshe is the Eugene Saldanha fellow for social justice reporting, sponsored by CAF Southern Africa
Judge stuns warring parties
This week’s decision by a judge to persuade labour and platinum mining companies to enter into mediation headed by her to try to resolve a 17-week strike is “highly unusual”, according to a labour court expert.
This is not least because Judge Hilary Rabkin-Naicker had been scheduled on Tuesday to hear an urgent application by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) to interdict the platinum mining companies – Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), Impala Platinum (Implats) and Lonmin – from communicating their pay offers directly to employees by SMSes and phone calls.
Meanwhile, the companies and Amcu have undertaken not to make any public comments or continue to communicate directly with striking workers during the court mediation process. A senior mining employee said the decision by Rabkin-Naicker came “totally off left field” as the parties were expecting to have to battle it out in court.
In the past, judges have recommended that opposing parties attempt mediation before asking the court to rule on a matter, calling on the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) to hear the case in question first. In this case, Amcu and the mining companies have already gone to the CCMA for mediation, without getting any closer to a resolution. It has been three weeks since their last meeting and, according to Lonmin representatives at a press conference on Monday, no further meeting had been scheduled between the union and the companies.
The judge on Tuesday held talks behind closed doors with legal teams representing both sides. It is alleged that she asked both parties to consider the bigger issue of the strike first, rather than the lesser issue concerning whether Amplats, Implats and Lonmin had a right to communicate directly with staff about the wage dispute.
According to a source involved in the negotiations, should no agreement be reached the matter is expected to go back to square one, which means the court will then hear the urgent interdict about companies communicating directly with unionised striking employees.
It is not clear whether Rabkin-Naicker would then hear that matter, having attempted to mediate in the process. On Monday Lonmin dismissed 235 essential services workers, the company said, as the workers had ignored a court order to return to work by May 12. Under Lonmin’s recognition agreement with Amcu, employees engaged in essential services may not participate in any strike. – Chantelle Benjamin