Deadly cost of Sibanye-Stillwater gold miners’ strike

More than nine people have reportedly died as a result of violence during the strike and there is reason to believe that this number may be higher. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

More than nine people have reportedly died as a result of violence during the strike and there is reason to believe that this number may be higher. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

The five-month strike by gold miners at Sibanye-Stillwater has halted with the announcement that the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) had accepted the same wage offer that its three rival unions — the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Solidarity and Uasa — accepted in October.

But families and friends of mine workers remain traumatised by the loss of loved ones killed in the violent acts that were a recurring element of the strike.

The wage agreement Amcu agreed to gives workers a R700 increase for the next two years and an R825 increase in the third year. Amcu members had been holding out for a R1 000 increase in each of the three years.

Amcu’s members have lost five months worth of wages, but this is far from the only cost of the strike.

More than nine people have reportedly died as a result of violence during the strike and there is reason to believe that this number may be higher.

Union officials were extremely reluctant to share the names of those who had been killed as their families are traumatised and fear further hostilities.

Collateral damage

Many mineworkers and their families have been forced to relocate to new homes because of the ongoing violence. Mineworkers were reportedly beaten, stabbed, shot and hijacked, and many had their homes and cars petrol-bombed during the strike.

A house near Virginia in the Free State that was torched resulted in two sisters, aged eight and 15, being hospitalised with bad burns.

Lerato, 15, survived for 78 days before dying from her burn wounds.
She was buried two weeks ago.

Her eight-year-old sister had skin grafts the same week Lerato was buried and is said to be doing well, but still in hospital.

Their father is a rock drill operator at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Beatrix mine near Welkom in the Free State.

‘Third hand’

NUM president Joseph Montisetse said in the last weeks of the strike that a commission of inquiry was required to investigate the killings that accompanied it. In previous media interviews, he had referred to a “third hand” that was involved in the killings, but now says he does not want to speculate about who was behind it.

“I am not a police officer, I don’t know why my members are being killed,” he said. “But people are planning the killing, killers are being hired.”

“Who is giving the orders?” he asked rhetorically.

Montisetse had recently returned from the funeral in Port St Johns of NUM member Mbhekani Jali, who was killed in an ambush on his way home from the Driefontein mine near Carletonville in Gauteng.

He had also recently heard that Lerato had died in hospital.

“It is very difficult, people dying because of our union,” he said, with frustration evident in his voice. “Husbands have been killed, homes burnt, furniture burnt. It’s a very difficult situation.”

Why Beatrix and Driefontein?

A source familiar with security concerns throughout the five-month strike said that the Driefontein and Beatrix mines were the targets of much of the violence because mineworkers there live further away from the mine shafts, with few access roads between their homes and the mine. This made travelling mineworkers “easy targets”said the source, with roads being barricaded.

At the Beatrix mine, a group of mineworkers was shot at while travelling to work on a bus and in a separate incident while waiting at a bus stop.

In the areas surrounding the Driefontein mine, a number of hijackings and road barricades were reported.

Driefontein is the world’s deepest gold mine in the world’s richest gold mining area.

Sibanye-Stillwater spokesperson James Wellsted said there was massive inter-union violence at Driefontein in the 1980s and it has had a “radical” history since then.

Many mineworkers who choose not to be hostel dwellers and receive a living-out allowance live in nearby Blybank, he said.

The source said many of these mineworkers are married and live in Blybank with their families, confirming that these houses belong to Sibanye-Stillwater and were built by the company some years ago.

The source said more than 500 mineworkers and their families had to be relocated from Blybank because the situation was so unsafe. These mineworkers belonged to NUM and Amcu, and were accommodated either in houses that Sibanye-Stillwater owns in Carletonville or at an old office building that had been converted into temporary living quarters known as Chefs Service.

Beatrix

NUM Beatrix branch secretary Xolisa Ngquiliso says four NUM members died in the Free State during the strike.

He says that on November 21, a NUM member was shot and killed at Beatrix while four other mineworkers were reported as being seriously injured. The attack happened in the early hours of the first day of the strike, when a bus carrying mineworkers to work was attacked.

NUM Beatrix branch deputy chair Teboho Mohale is reported to have said that the NUM member who was shot had recently returned from burying his father and was not part of the strike.

In a later incident on February 13, a bakkie is reported to have pulled up at a bus stop, where the occupants opened fire on 40 mineworkers.

Two NUM members, a man and a woman, were reported to have been shot and killed, and three others injured — two wounded by bullets and the fifth assaulted by the gunmen.

In a third incident, a NUM member from Beatrix was shot and killed in his house in Virginia on 18 March, according to Ngquiliso.

Unexplained deaths

There are many other deaths that remain unexplained.

Free State police spokesperson Colonel Thandi Mbambo said that a mineworker found floating in the Bloudrif Dam near Beatrix was suspected of being part of a group of mineworkers that Beatrix security personnel had chased the day before.

Amcu has also claimed that one of its Beatrix workers was killed during the strike. It has been reported that one of its members was stabbed inside the Beatrix hostel on the night of November 21 2018.

In what appears to be a separate incident, a 53-year-old Amcu member was reportedly stabbed multiple times and shot several times in the back after workers clashed with Beatrix security guards at 4am. The police found 12 used 9mm cartridges near the body.

Another worker was reported to have been shot and taken to a local hospital. Amcu claimed Beatrix security guards and police officials attacked its members, firing rubber bullets at them during an all-night picket.

Driefontein

At the Driefontein mine, there were a number of barricaded hijackings on the road between the mine and Blybank. It was during one of these that Jali died. He is reported to have shot and killed one of his hijackers before being killed himself.

In November, the police reported that a NUM member had been stabbed to death at Driefontein Hostel. Police spokesperson Warrant Officer Peter Masooa could not say at the time if the death was related to the ongoing strike or not.

The source said a mineworker was shot just last week while walking to work at Driefontein at 4am along the railway line. The mineworker is in a critical condition in hospital.

Some reports put the number of houses torched in Blybank at more than 50, along with several cars.

Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe called for the police to intervene in Blybank and Police Minister Bheki Cele visited this area of Carletonville a number of times.

The police discovered 11 abandoned petrol bombs at a taxi rank in Blybank on 8 March 2019. It has been suggested to New Frame that they were abandoned there because the police were searching people’s homes, but this cannot be confirmed.

The violence wasn’t limited to Blybank. A shack settlement called Tin City, situated between two of the Driefontein mineshafts, also experienced shootings, stonings, illegal roadblocks and torched homes, according to the source.

The source said intimidation that often involved guns and knives was common in Blybank and the surrounding areas, and there was much speculation as to who was behind it, with accusations flying from all sides.

The police had arrested a number of mineworkers who were carrying unlicensed firearms in the area, according to the source.

A number of attempts were made to get comment from AMCU and the SAPS, but none was forthcoming.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published in New Frame.

Lloyd Gedye

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