/ 16 August 2016

From historical legacy to Lily Mine: Five examples of unfinished business in mining

Rescuers have been toiling around the clock
Rescuers have been toiling around the clock

The aftermath of the Marikana massacre has done little to improve the lives of those who work in mining. In a post-Marikana world, mineworkers and activists still suffer under harmful conditions.

This year alone at least 30 people have lost their lives in mining accidents. The department of mineral resources released this figure in May, saying that three more people had died this year than in the same period of 2015.

“Zero harm remains our goal, and it is possible if we all work together and make health and safety our priority. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels,” said Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi J Zwane.

In 2012, when miners downed tools and protested for a R12 500 living wage so that they can better support their families, they were tackling an issue that has been embedded in South Africa’s mining sector. The 30 deaths this year have been the result of accidents, as opposed to the brutal killings of the 34 miners at Marikana. But the deaths in this year alone have many families, activists and workers believing that not enough has been done to treat people who work in mines with respect.

These are just a few of the post-Marikana incidents that have impacted on miners’ lives.

1. Lily Mine
In February 2016, a shaft at the Lily Mine’s operations in Barberton, near Mpumalanga, collapsed, leaving more than 100 mineworkers trapped. Three months later, in May, Solomon Nyerenda‚ Pretty Nkambule and Yvonne Mnisi remained trapped underground. The three workers were in a metal container known as a lamp room, which fell through a sinkhole at the time.

The bodies of the three workers have yet to be recovered, and with the withdrawal of much-needed investment from AfroCan Resources, a Canadian gold mining firm, the chances of recovery have dwindled. AfroCan was to be Lily Mine’s main partner in a R200-million bid to build a new shaft that would allow rescue workers access to the metal container.

Trade union federation Cosatu said that the disaster was an example of the lack of accountability and transformation in the mining sector.

“An investigation must be carried out and those who were reckless and those who failed to adhere to health and safety standards should be held accountable,” Cosatu’s Sizwe Pamla said.

2. The killing of Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe
Rhadebe was part of a group of activists who had been opposed to a 12-year mining bid that would lay waste to an environmentally sensitive piece of land at Xolobeni on the Wild Coast where they lived. He was shot eight times at his home in Mdatya village by assailants who posed as police officers.

He had been the founding chairman of the anti-mining Amadiba Crisis Committee organisation since 2007 and, alongside fellow activists, had been outspoken about mining operations in the Eastern Cape region by Mineral Commodities Limited, which is based in Perth, Australia. Although the company has said it is in no way linked to Rhadebe’s murder, activists are convinced that foul play is involved.

Rhadebe’s killers have not yet been arrested .

3. Impala Platinum deaths
In the space of one year, six people have died as a result of mining catastrophes in the world’s biggest platinum producer’s mining operations in the Rustenburg area. In January 2016, a fire broke out in the mine’s number 14 shaft and the company said that the four had lost their lives after being “overcome by fumes while they were trying to find their way to safety”.

The same shaft experienced problems in November and December. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said those liable must be prosecuted.

“We are deeply concerned about these fatalities,” the NUM said in an e-mailed statement on Sunday. “Those found responsible for negligence must be prosecuted. The NUM is of the view that one death in the industry is just one death too many.”

Needless to say, prosecution never happened.

4. Northam Platinum killings
Two months ago, tension between NUM and Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) members at the Zondereinde mine escalated, and clashes broke out, leading to the death of an Amcu member who was stabbed with an assagai. He was reportedly killed a day after a NUM member had been murdered.

Eight NUM members were arrested, but it’s not the first time violence between the two unions has ended in death. Marikana is perhaps one of the most public examples of how fatal violence has manifested between the two unions.

5. A historical legacy
Mineworkers have always been treated appallingly. It happened when colonialists discovered that parts of South Africa are rich in mineral resources and metals for pretty and pricey jewellery. It happened later too, in apartheid, which extended colonial systems (such as the inhumane living conditions in hostels and the exploitation of black migrant labour) and enacted laws to ensure that, if black workers fought back through protest, they would suffer bloody consequences.

But as Mandeep Tiwana explains, the Marikana massacre happened in a democratic South Africa governed by a party that had suffered the deadly response of apartheid rulers when it had led protests. It was partly what led to the shocked response of many citizens and the international community.

“In contrast, the massacre at Marikana happened under a government elected by universal suffrage, a constitutional bill of rights unmatched anywhere in the world, and a healthy culture of public debate and free expression,” Tiwana wrote for the Mail & Guardian.

Yet, no police officers have been arrested, no responsibility has been taken, and no compensation has been paid to injured miners or the widows of the slain.