Mining while female: The perils of Marikana

Women miners in South Africa say they are often subjected to sexual harassment – and worse – while on the job.

Johannesburg, South Africa – It has been almost two years since 27-year-old Pinky Mosiane was raped and murdered hundreds of metres underground in an Anglo Platinum mineshaft in Marikana, South Africa.

A suspect in the Mosiane case was finally arrested three months ago. This was not the first time a woman mineworker had been raped underground in South Africa. But it was the first time that substantial attention was given to these women and the sexual harassment they are subjected to on a daily basis. 

In August 2012, a mining town named Marikana, along the “Platinum Belt” in South Africa’s North West province, made headlines  around the globe. Thirty-four mineworkers employed by platinum miner Lonmin were killed when police opened fire during a strike over wages.

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But the women of Lonmin have often remained unnoticed. “Anne”, a miner employed by Lonmin in Marikana who asked that her real name not be used, has been working underground for three years fixing ventilation pipes. With her gold-painted nails and not a stray hair amid her tight braids, it is hard to imagine her labouring in overalls, covered in black dust. 

“After [the end of the work day] at midday, we have to wait till 3:30pm in the waiting area for the lift to take us back to the surface,” she says. “Some days, it was me alone with 12 men.” She says there have been days where there have been five women left in the waiting area with as many as 65 men.

Because many mining companies either do not meet the 10 percent quota of female employees required by the South African Mining Charter, or stick to the minimum, there are often very few women on a shift with dozens of men. Just eight percent of Lonmin employees are women. 

Few female miners

Sue Vey, a spokesperson for Lonmin, said that while the company has not met the 10 percent quota, it was planning “to achieve this milestone”. Just over five percent of the company’s female employees work underground. She says the mine does not consider the ratio of men to women allocated to a shift, instead appointing them based on the requirements of the roles. 

“Eish, how many women were raped underground?” Anne asks rhetorically, shaking her head. She says that if a woman were to be raped, she would not report it to an authority figure, for fear of losing her job. “There are only two toilets in the section. One for men and one for women. For 70 workers. But it’s so far to walk and it’s dark, dark, dark. Even if you scream, no-one is going to hear you.” 

Tiny Magija, the coordinator of the Justice for Pinky Mosiane Campaign, says that while companies are aware of the issue of sexual abuse and harassment underground, they are not doing much about it. 

“Research has shown that gender-based violence in mining is very rife,” she says. “The quota has always been there, but it hasn’t been implemented and no-one is voicing an opinion about it, till it’s at the point where abuse is happening every day. Women in the mining industry are seen as sex objects.” 

She says a major part of the problem is that “the people in the positions of power are the same people oppressing women. Look at Pinky: The man arrested was an occupational health safety officer. The companies don’t care about sexually based violence. If they did, then why is it taking them so long to actually do anything?”

When asked about complaints, Lonmin’s Vey said there had been no reported cases of rape at the company, and that it had sexual harassment policies and procedures, and kept employees informed of what to do in such situations through extensive communication campaigns. 

Claims of harassment

Gender-based abuse underground goes beyond the obviously violent, say female miners at the company, who claim they have to sell their bodies to climb the ranks, or to have their complaints taken seriously. 

“If you want something at work, you have to love the supervisor or chibaas [chief boss] or the kaptein [captain],” said Anne. “It’s hard to get a promotion, because guys take advantage – they just say ‘love me’.” 

Alternatively, she says she could pay a bribe, also known as a “chocho”, for as much as 5,000 South African rand ($470), to her captain. She says that she cannot talk to the staff in the human resources department as “they are all men”. 

Safety of all our employees is critical and therefore we take a dim view to any acts of harassment.

by - Sue Vey, Lonmin spokesperson

“Connie”, who also asked that her real name not be used, broke her leg while on shift underground at Lonmin in 2008, and has since left the company. But even then, said the 35-year-old, the problems were the same. When she applied for a job, she was asked for sex a few times, but refused. “Women are treated very unfairly in this job,” she said. “If you want a better position, you have to bribe or sleep with the bosses, even the ones in HR. Women who won’t do it, who try to stand their ground, get dismissed.”

She said women are considered powerless by their male co-workers. “Lonmin has a budget for women, but their employees are trying to destroy our dignity. They just use us.”

Vey said that “these are certainly very serious allegations. Safety of all our employees is critical and therefore we take a dim view to any acts of harassment”. She said that the company had “human resources staff deployed across the business who are trained to assist employees with social and workplace issues” and an anonymous tip-off line that employees could use to report cases of harassment.

“We also have an extensive Employee Wellness Programme that could be used. We also have Women in Mining structures across the business, run by women.” 

But female miners say almost every aspect of their work involves some kind of harassment. In the lifts between the surface and the shaft, women are squashed between men’s bodies; they are insulted for being less powerful physically.

‘Part of underground culture’

Asanda Benya is a sociologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, who spent time working underground as part of her research.

“To a huge degree, harassment has been normalised, so that’s one of the ways they deal with it – they accept it as part of underground culture. I think to some degree the companies are are aware of it, but not at the true scale. At the same time, they are in denial about it, or also see it as normal ‘mining men’ behaviour.”

She said that while women do complain, “most times the HR officer is friends with the accused and the case is never really followed through, or women are told ‘it’s not harassment, they are appreciating you – that’s how it is in mining’. At other times, the women are afraid to report [attacks] because they don’t want to lose their jobs or be alienated by other workers.” 

Yet even considering the risks involved, the high unemployment rate for women in Marikana means that a job in the mines is something to aspire to. 

“Women have no choice but to do this work,” said Anne. “Life is difficult. Who can help you? I don’t know. There is no-one to tell about my problems. And I can’t trust anyone: You never know who is good and who is wrong.”

Follow Ilham Rawoot on Twitter at the Dirty Profits Exposed project: @DirtyProfitsExp

This report was produced with the support of the  Facing Finance campaign and the Forum for African Investigative Reporters.

Source: Al Jazeera