/ 26 November 2014

Swaziland miners and police in ‘Marikana style’ face-off

White crosses mark the location of the Marikana massacre.
White crosses mark the location of the Marikana massacre.

In a scene reminiscent of the Marikana massacre, hundreds of striking miners were on Tuesday engaged in a tense stand off with heavily-armed police at a Swaziland mine owned mostly by the ANC-linked Chancellor House.

Over 250 miners downed tools on Monday at Maloma colliery mine demanding between R425 and R800 a month in housing allowances, general secretary for the Amalgamated Trade Unions of Swaziland (Atuswa) Wander Mkhonza told the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday.

Hundreds of Swaziland police officers wielding riot shields, protective headgear, guns and teargas descended on the mine, according to Mkhonza. He said police presence at the mine began as soon as the union served their notification to strike two weeks before the strike.

He insisted that the strike had been peaceful to date and that the police presence was unwarranted.

The Times newspaper in Swaziland reported on Tuesday that the striking miners had retreated to a hilltop near the mine, following a minor confrontation with the police after they tried to cross a barrier line put in place by police officers.

Workers were allowed to demonstrate only about 80 metres from the mine, according to a court interdict awarded to the mine on Monday, the Times reported.

Mhonza told the M&G that workers had slept on the hill through the night. Workers told the Times they retreated to the hill after the altercation with police over the boundary line, fearing a repeat of the Marikana massacre.

In August 2012, South African police shot and killed over 40 miners at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, after weeks of violent protests. The incident shocked the country and made international headlines, putting the problematic relationship between government and big business under the spotlight after it came to light that current South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, who sat on Lonmin’s board, appeared to have used his influence in government to summon the heavy police reaction to protect the mine’s interests.

The interests of both the South African and the Swaziland governments are far clearer in the current situation.

Maloma colliery produces anthracite, and is the last remaining official mine in Swaziland and an important source of revenue for the country. Chancellor House Holdings, which was started as an investment arm of the ruling ANC in South Africa, own 75% of the mine, while the remaining 25% is owned by the Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, a billion-rand trust effectively controlled by Swaziland’s King Mswati III.

Mswati’s regime has clamped down heavily on trade union activity in Swaziland, which critics say is thanks to the king’s stake in every major business in the country. The newly formed Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (Tucoswa) was effectively declared illegal in 2013 following protests demanding greater democratic mechanisms.

Dumezweni Dlamini, programme manager at the Foundation For Social Economic Justice, told the M&G that police response to strike action had become a regular feature in Swaziland.

“The royalty has shares in most of the major companies in Swaziland so it is a case of protecting of those interests,” said Dlamini. “The trade unions have been banned because there were coming together and challenging as a united force.”

Now the miners are isolated in their strike, and workers from other sectors are not allowed to show solidarity.

Dlamini has worked with the Maloma area, located in the rural southern Lubombo region of Swaziland. “It is a highly poverty-stricken area and very rural,” he says. He explained that housing in the area was a challenge for workers, who built thatched huts made from mud and sticks, that could not withstand heavy rains. “In fact they should be asking for even more [money].”

A Chancellor House-led consortium paid a reported R25-million for a 75% stake in the mine, which was purchased from Xstrata in May 2010.

Transaction with odd features
The Maloma transaction had a number of odd features, the M&G previously reported, based on internal documents on the sale.

The mine, which supplies anthracite to Xstrata’s ferrochrome operations and Richards Bay Minerals, appeared to be making losses. The seller, Xstrata, disclosed Maloma had an assessed tax loss of R198-million and a “non-interest-bearing loan account liability” to Xstrata of R192-million.

Despite this, it appears the buyers were talking of raising loans that wildly overvalued the purchase. One document states: “The parties – have to raise the amount of R500-million or such other amount as represents the fair enterprise value of the target company.”

Chancellor House did not immediately respond to emailed questions. A spokesperson for the police in Swaziland Superintendent Khulani Mamba did not answer his phone, neither did a representative for the mine, Human Resources Manager Gabriel Manana.

Mamba told the Times: “There is an ongoing situation at the mine. Police are only there to monitor the situation.”

The ANC’s treasurer general Zweli Mkhize told the M&G that Chancellor House “was started by the leadership of the ANC” but he said the party did not issue directions to the company. “It gives donations to the ANC but it is an independent company.” The company has appeared in the news for landing valuable state and parastatal contracts in the past.