S Africa miners complain of ‘living hell’

As a bitter strike continues, workers in informal settlements face poverty, crime and inadequate housing.

South Africa miners community [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]
Shacks in mining settlements often do not protect residents from harsh winter weather [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

Marikana, South Africa – Mazayamda Phakamile stands on a ladder, sweeping hailstones off the roof of his red shack after a breathtaking hailstorm turned the vast plateau of the Wonderkop informal settlement just outside Marikana into a sheet of white.

“The ice collects on the roof and then it leaks into my house,” Phakamile, 35, told Al Jazeera once the storm subsided. “In the summer, it becomes like a hot box and then in the winter, we freeze. It can be [quite] torturous.” 

Like most of the residents in Wonderkop, Phakamile’s shack is built from sheets of corrugated iron. His neatly painted red shelter lacks basic amenities like electricity, or running water.

Phakamile snickers as he points to the nearby shrubs and rock area, known as small koppie, to indicate where residents of the sprawling shantytown go to relieve themselves.

But life in the Wonderkop settlement is no laughing matter, residents say.

Daily strife

The community, located near the Lonmin-owned platinum mine which has been the scene of a bitter strike, wages a daily battle with air and noise pollution, intense crime and appalling living conditions.

With no access to sanitation and garbage removal, the surrounding plateau is strewn with rotting rubbish. Nearby streams are polluted by sewage as thousands live out realities far from the billion-dollar industry they clock their cards into each morning.

“I support the strike because I don’t benefit in any way from this mine

– Phakamile, non-unionised worker

That the community lives by candlelight between towering electricity pylons generating power for the huge mining industry is an irony not lost on the residents.

While the men toil underground extracting vast riches for Lonmin’s shareholders, up on the surface their children must walk through a dumpsite to go to school.

This disconnect of the workers from the wealth they generate is an inherent feature of life in post-apartheid South Africa, critics say. According to miners, staggering inequality in the distribution of wealth has led them to strike, risking their jobs in a struggle for higher wages.

Striking workers are demanding a monthly base pay of 12,500 rand ($1,500), which is twice the current rate. The mining company says it cannot afford such a drastic pay hike.   

“I support the strike because I don’t benefit in any way from this mine … they do nothing for us [but] if I received a better wage, I would send it home to my wife [in Eastern Cape],” Phakamile, a non-unionised operator at the mine, said.

Miners continually complain about poor living conditions and it is not hard to understand why.

“When the weather isn’t good, we have a difficult time here,” Mziwenkosi Mthenjwa, a miner living at the Wonderkop settlement, told Al Jazeera as he waded through the thick, slurry of mud caused by torrential rain.

“We don’t enjoy living here … it is just a way of getting income to survive,” he said.

Living precariously

Although abysmal living conditions have certainly contributed to the rising anger of mineworkers in Marikana, it is only one part of the story.

Decades of alleged exploitation by mine companies, years of local and national government negligence and – crucially – rising discontent with trade union structures, have culminated in the unyielding, stubborn demands of workers, desperate to improve their lives.

Ndumiso, a miner from Marikana who didn’t want to use his real name, told Al Jazeera that the impasse is the consequence of miners feeling ignored by their unions.

“The unions refused to listen to the rock drillers’ demands … so of course people got angry,” he said.

The loss of confidence in National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the biggest union in the industry, and the rivalry with the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has added greater complexity to the unrest.

But Crispen Chingulo, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says the combined effect “of living precarious lives at both work and home while knowing all too well how profitable the mines really are” is partly behind the workers’ resolute demands.

Calls increase to nationalise S Africa’s mines

“It is imperative that we connect these two worlds because then their demands for a 300 per cent wage hike would no longer appear ‘unreasonable’ or ‘outrageous’,” Chingulo, whose PhD project explores rising dissent in the platinum industry, said.

According to Chingulo, mineworkers have serious grievances and they feel exploited in a time of increasing levels of insecure types of work, where thousands of miners are hired as casual workers, receiving lower wages and no benefits. 

Abnormal living

Eric Mokuoa, an activist with the LUKA environmental forum in Johannesburg agrees that it is this unhealthy amalgamation of a well-entrenched history of exploitation, ever rising inequalities and a feeling of neglect that has birthed an angry community.

He said the conditions of life in the mining settlements were “creating a community that is not normal”.

“They are living in poverty even though they are employed and working at the mine,” Mukuoa said.

He stressed, however, that the failure of the mines to invest and create a healthy living environment for their employees should not distract from the failure of national and local governments to improve the area.

“Our (local government) councilor – you will be lucky if you find him. We are trying to speak to him about the problems here but we can’t see him. The councilors, all of them are corrupt,” Jacob, a miner from the Marikana area who did not want his real name used, said.

The Rustenburg Report, compiled by group of community environmentalists and activists in 2011, found that mining communities continue to live in squalor, as they always have, amid constant vibrations from heavy machinery and detonations. 

As more people search for work at the mines, many of these areas are now imploding in protest because they are overpopulated and ridden by unemployment, the report said. 

Following the killing of 34 miners on August 16, the world’s attention might be focused on conditions at the Lonmin mines in Marikana, but the situation at the settlements at the nearby AngloPlats mine or the Impala mine are no different.

The Wonderkop settlement is one of 15 informal settlements in the Marikana precinct; and neighbouring communities face similar problems with poverty and poor housing. 

The government “has grown to become a partner with the mines and has not played their role as custodian of community lives”, the report alleged. 

‘Mining regime’

With Lonmin miners still uninterested in the peace accord signed by government, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Lonmin’s management, the burning question is not if this impasse can be solved, but if the ramifications of what has taken place can be contained to Marikana.

“The situation is not different from other mining areas, the difference [now] is just August 16 … but the social conditions are the same everywhere,” Mukuoa said.

The mining industry has been an incumbent, historical feature of South Africa’s political economy but some experts warn that the industry is in decline.

Chingulo says that inequality in the industry is so deeply rooted that one could look at the ongoing strike as the miners “taking on the accumulating mining regime that has existed for 150 years”.

And while few believe the mining industry is about to experience a major shake-up, Chingulo says the developments suggest “this could be the beginning of something new”.

Back at the Wonderkop settlement, as Mazayamda Phakamile finishes explaining the problems in the community, the heavens open once more; giant drops pelt down and he is compelled to resume drying the modest furniture in his leaking shack. 

Source: Al Jazeera