Marikana, South Africa – Joe Rodrigues, in his early fifties, says that in all his 28 years living in Marikana, he has never seen the town so tightly coiled. There is a palpable sense of tension permeating life, and business in the one-horse mining town. Rodrigues, owner of one of only two bottle stores in the community, said people were seething with anger following unrest that claimed the lives of some 44 people in the last two weeks.
“I have been here for 28 years and we have been through the old government and the new government, and I have seen nothing like this before,” Rodrigues told Al Jazeera.
The town of Marikana captured international headlines on August 16, when 34 striking miners were shot dead by security forces in what has been dubbed the biggest and most brutal police operation in the country since the end of the Apartheid.
An estimated 3,000 miners have been striking for better living conditions and asking for a wage hike of almost 300 per cent.
The shooting exacerbated the standoff between management of the Lonmin-owned mine and striking workers. Since the killings, residents say the town, in South Africa’s North West province, has been on edge. As it continues to reel under an amplified police presence, the residue of miners’ wages are quickly drying up. The local economy, already fragile in a precarious global financial climate, is taking a beating.
“Since the shootings, our business has suffered,” says Tekele Lambebo, 27, an Ethiopian national who owns a women’s apparel store in the town.
The town has just one Main Street dressed by a couple of department stores, a supermarket and an obligatory KFC.
“No one is earning anything, and there are no customers in our store, he said.
It is a sentiment echoed by Selima Khoza, 38, a fruit and vegetable hawker working in a makeshift wooden structure near the town and Lonmin’s smelting plant. She says her business been adversely affected, and she fears for her safety every time the strikers march.
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“I am mostly scared of the strikers because they are very intimidating and there is always a fear of looting,” she said.
But it’s not just the strikers Khoza is afraid of. She says the police have also been reckless. Their actions on August 16 still weigh heavily on the subconscious of residents, even weeks after the shooting.
“I was sitting here and there were helicopters above us and the police were all over the place. They were even knocking over people on the road as they rushed about,” Khoza said.
The town changed that day, she says.
“I remember being afraid and since that day miners have not been coming to the shop because they don’t have the money to buy anything,” she said as she runs off to chase a pair of goats chewing hungrily on spinach spilling out of a basket in the far corner of her stall.
‘Between life and death’
Residents express a frankness over the negative impact off the protracted strike on the town’s sustenance. They are often suspicious of the role of trade unions in the dispute and the unpredictable nature of the strike action.
Most town folk are, however, cautious not to discount the strike action entirely.
“Miners are living between life and death in a hole in the ground and they deserve better,” Lambebo said.
“I don’t blame them for striking. The wages are too low for the work they are doing,” Alberto Santos, 35, manager of Rodrigues’ bottle store, said.
“But I [also] think the demands are extreme. Also, maybe the demands should have been done in stages … Look, the conditions are also bad, and I can’t blame them for being upset,” Santos said.
Rodrigues, however, warns that the role of intimidation in the strike action should not be discounted.
“I think the reason this [violence] happened, is because of intimidation from certain quarters … a small group influencing a bigger group [and] people are vulnerable, and as a result things like this happen,” Rodrigues said.
Even before the shooting of 34 miners by police, there had reportedly been incidents of intimidation between members of rival National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Association of Mineworker and Construction Union (AMCU). There was allegedly a hit list as part of the intimidation campaign.
On Wednesday, workers marched to Lonmin’s Karee mine to ensure the mine was abandoned and totally shutdown. As a strategy for strike action, it worked. The next morning, Lonmin reported average attendance across all its shifts at 1.65 per cent – down from 6.5 per cent on Tuesday.
The strikers have earned a reputation for intimidation. S’bongile Mafere, 26, told Al Jazeera that her sister, an employee of Lonmin, wanted to return to work but could not do so for fear of incurring the wrath of the strikers. Mafere said that despite her sister’s meagre living conditions in the Wonderkop settlement, renowned for being without basic amenities like water, electricity or sanitation, the need to earn a consistent wage was too urgent to be curtailed by intimidation for this long.
“She hopes the strike will end. She needs the money but she [and others] cannot go back to work because these people will kill them.”
“This town depends on the mine. If there is no mine, then there is no town.”
-Joe Rodrigues, store owner
Despite her reservations with the strikers’ tactics, Mafere believes that theirs is still a worthy cause.
“We just didn’t think that people would end up dying. No one thought that the strike will end up this way,” Mafere says.
She pins the ambivalence of the reception of the strike on leadership woes within the union setup, alleging that most miners were frustrated and angry because the unions had failed them. “If the unions delivered their promises, we would not have this situation,” she said.
As the strike enters its fourth week, residents wonder how the impasse will end and what effect the dispute will have on Marikana town.
Responding to rumours that the Lonmin smelter might be forced to shut down if the strike did not end within the next couple days, Rodrigues says the effect on the town would be catastrophic.
“This town depends on the mine,” he said. “If there is no mine, then there is no town.”
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