Marikana: Freedom’s bitter paradox

Nkaneng is an informal settlement adjacent to the Lonmin platinum operations in Wonderkop in the North West, and is one of the biggest in the platinum belt. By 2012 it had a population estimated at more than 15 000.

Nkaneng is part of the new post-apartheid mining settlement geography and its origin is encapsulated in its name. In both isiXhosa and Sesotho, nkaneng or nkanini loosely means a place occupied by force. This captures how the people settled here without the consent of the land owners; the Bapo Ba Mohale tribal authority.

I moved to Nkaneng in 2012 and rented a matchbox metal-sheet shack for six weeks as part of an ethnographic study to understand the lives of mineworkers.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Chamber of Mines agreed to phase out the migrant labour and hostel system after 1994. This was replaced by a living out-allowance, paid in lieu of company accommodation. The scaling back of hostels triggered the proliferation of informal settlements with no basic services and conditions perhaps, from my experience, worse than those found in the apartheid hostels. In the Rustenburg area, there are more than 45 informal settlements and an estimated 41% of the dwellings are informal compared to a national average of about 15%.

Two decades ago, Nkaneng was used for grazing by the local Bapo Ba Mohale- Batswana villagers.

Haphazard settlement
Nkaneng has no proper roads or infrastructure. The soil is clay and the settlement is haphazard. After heavy rain the roads are impassable. Shacks become waterlogged and uninhabitable. On such nights I sat on a 20-litre water container until the water inside my shack drained away.

Some parts of Nkaneng now have water and electricity, but there is still no sewage reticulation system and everyone uses pit toilets, buckets or the bush toilet. I had to learn to do everything in my shack, including bathing in a 10-litre bucket. Shacks like these get very cold in winter and hot in summer.

Crime and security are problems, a result of high unemployment. There is no lighting at night and, on average, I was told  there are at least two murders every fortnight. At night there is also the risk of being mugged on the way to the toilet.

The conversion of hostels into family units has created a shortage of company housing, as one unit takes space for eight workers. The dominant union – at the time it was the NUM – was in charge of allocation of accommodation. I was told you have to pay the union officials a R3 000 bribe to  jump the “queue”.

The living-out allowance, which was R1 850 per month in 2012, is almost half the average mineworker’s net earnings. Hostel rentals at the time were R220 and a shack cost R300 per month. New stands are no longer available, but it used to cost R15 to get one. It now costs about R13 000 from a private sale.

Dignity and freedom
The shift from the hostels is not just economic but is tied to the notion of dignity and freedom. Initially, those who quit hostels move into the adjoining Tswana villages where they rent shacks. These villages gradually became congested and the Tswana landlords started charging exorbitant rentals, which created ethnic tensions.

Some, among them the isiXhosa, Sesotho and Shangaan speakers, then moved on to the nearby veld in the early 1990s and erected shacks.

Their numbers swelled and this became a form of “insurgent citizenship”. Eviction attempts were in vain. Most of those living in Nkaneng are migrants from the Eastern Cape, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland, underpinning the continuity in the circle of labour migration.

Most are employed at Lonmin, which has externalised a significant proportion of its labour. In 2012 it employed 28 230 people directly and 10 000 through third parties. Subcontractors do not normally provide accommodation to employees.

Apartheid had influx control legislation and workers who had been discharged had to return to their homelands. After democracy, people are now “free” to move and live anywhere they wish.

Informal economy
There are a significant number of people in Nkaneng who have failed to find formal work and have been pushed into the informal economy.

The thriving informal economy in Nkaneng has also attracted many migrants, including entrepreneurs from China, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Changes in legislation that tie a mining licence to the improvement of adjoining local communities have created new boundaries and contestations for legitimacy. The emergence of slums such as Nkaneng were never envisaged. Although Lonmin acknowledges that many of its employees live in Nkaneng, the settlement nevertheless does not seem to fit into its definition of a local community because it is seen as illegitimate. Lonmin does, however, provide intermittent services.

Nkaneng residents organise around worker identity, while Bapong villagers draw from a Tswana ethnic identity tied to the land claim. As a result, strikes have popular support in Nkaneng but not in the villages. 

In August 2011, the villagers organised protests alleging discrimination in recruitment by Lonmin, which they claimed preferred migrants. Lonmin is committed to recruiting locally, but the elements of the apartheid recruitment regime and settlement geography based on ethnicity underscores covert continuity of its past.

Local state structures in Nkaneng are nonexistent or dysfunctional, including the South African Police Service. This, however, does not mean that disorder reigns. People do not just move in to the area with abandon. Alternative informal local state structures based on vigilante form of justice have emerged. 

This is led by a committee with the mandate to maintain order and vet new settlers and the allocation of new stands, including to entrepreneurs. This also works as a community police forum. This has created a context for the emergence of alternative local moral orders. An informal “tribunal” presides over community delinquency cases and proscribes punishment.

Nkaneng is an enclave of paradoxes. On the one hand it represents freedom and liberation to its inhabitants and to others it is an eyesore. Most profoundly, it represents the mystery that the struggle against the apartheid legacy is far from finished.

Crispen Chinguno is a PhD fellow in Sociology at the Society Work and Development Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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