'We can't support our families' — Workers at Gupta-owned coal mine down tools

Optimum Coal workers making their way back to the mine to demand answers from management (Iavan Pijoos/News24)

Optimum Coal workers making their way back to the mine to demand answers from management (Iavan Pijoos/News24)

Mineworkers at the Gupta-owned Optimum Coal Mine in Mpumalanga downed tools on Wednesday over the uncertainty of their jobs and the future of the mine.

A large group of striking mineworkers gathered at the main gate of the mine early on Wednesday morning.

Many of them were still clad in their blue overalls and safety boots. They sang songs and waited for management to address them.

Richard Mguzulu, branch secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), said staff were afraid of losing their jobs since it’s been reported in the media that the Guptas “are all over the place”.

“There is no one that is addressing us and we don’t know what is the future of the mine. We have been told suppliers have not been paid for months and that is an indication that this mine at any time, is going to close,” Mguzulu said.

READ MORE: ‘How Eskom paid Tegeta to go treasure hunting for coal’

He said they had tried several times to approach management, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

“On the other side, the employees are pressurising us as leadership to know what the future of the mine is,” he said.

The mine’s general manager Howard Pyoos, later addressed the striking workers.

He said the Department of Mineral Resources was not aware of any possible sale of the mine because they had not filed for its transfer yet.

READ MORE: The rumoured sale of just part of the Guptas’ Optimum Coal beggars belief

The sale of mining rights required approval from the mining minister.

Pyoos told the workers that Swiss-based King Charles, who wanted to buy the mine, had already put in a deposit.

“A portion of that memorandum… required a deposit and, if the sale does not go through, that deposit must be given back to the buyer,” Pyoos said.

One of the workers in the crowd asked Pyoos about the arrest of the Guptas by the Hawks last week.

Pyoos said management could not comment on every article published in the media.

He said a meeting was supposed to take place with the leadership on Monday to discuss a way forward.

“The confirmation that we needed, that we had hoped for on Friday would be true, was not true – so we cancelled the meeting. I don’t want to communicate something which I am not sure of – whether you call me a liar or whatever, it’s fine,” he said.

Rapport reported on February 11 that Ajay was spotted at the Optimum mine on Tuesday, February 6.

Ajay landed in a helicopter at the mine with Ronica Ragavan, the chief executive of the Guptas’ holding company Oakbay Investments, who was arrested by the Hawks during raids at Gupta properties last week, in relation to a case involving the Estina dairy farm. She was later released on bail.

‘Guptas must go away’

According to the Hawks, Ajay is currently a fugitive from justice in an unrelated case.

Themba Mashele, who works as a plant operator at the mine, told News24 on Wednesday that there was no “proper equipment such as personal protection equipment” to do their jobs.

“I am very concerned about what is happening here and I am not getting paid in time. It is hard on me and I can’t even pay my debts,” Mashele said.

Mashele has been working at the mine for two years now.

Mashele said they wanted change and for the Guptas to be gone.

Mandla Ndlovu, also a plant operator at the mine, said they get paid R4 000 a month – while they used to be paid more than R6 000 in the past.

He had been working at the mine for seven years.

READ MORE: Zupta coal contracts, by the numbers

“When the Guptas came here, they dropped the rates and we can’t support our families with the rates we are getting,” Ndlovu said.

He voiced his frustration about not getting paid on time.

“[The] Guptas must go away so that things can improve at the mine,” he said. — News 24

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