Word quickly spread across the sprawling Marikana mine and its adjoining shack lands that South African President Jacob Zuma was finally about to release the findings of a commission of inquiry into the police killing of 34 miners here in August 2012.
Despite a court recommendation that the president give 48 hours’ notice so that families and survivors could prepare themselves, Zuma gave just a few hours’ warning.
The families of the dead and survivors desperately tried to get off work early to find a place to watch the live television address. But recurring power outages meant that finding a working television set was no simple matter.
So it was that dozens of men and women, wrapped in blankets and coats, huddled together in the drafty cold room made available by Lonmin, the British company that owns the mine.
Even then, explains Thapelo Lekgowa, a researcher and activist who joined them, they were unable to get the television to work properly. “We ended up listening to the president on a cell phone radio. The widows and miners there missed almost everything,” he says.
The report by the Marikana Commission is the culmination of almost three years of investigation into the events that took place here after rock drillers working in the platinum mine embarked on an strike.
Lonmin refused to meet them to discuss their wage demands and, keen to stop a “contagion” of strikes, and apparently to protect the interests of the politically connected shareholders, according to evidence from the Commission of Inquiry, the police moved in with assault rifles. Seventy-six miners were wounded and 34 were killed – many shot in the back or while surrendering.
But just what the report offered to those gathered remains somewhat ambiguous.
Dali Mpofu, who represented more than 300 of the injured and affected miners, promised his legal team would hold a mass meeting in Marikana to demystify and translate it. But for Professor Bonita Meyersfeld, the head of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, it is clear that it “does no justice to the pain and scarring that is the legacy of Marikana”.
She is disappointed in the report’s “lack of findings” and believes the decision to refer the murders for further investigation by prosecutors makes “a mockery of the last two years”.
“It seems a robust position was taken vis-a-vis the police, but it appears that the top police and political officials – all of whose actions do warrant investigation – will remain insulated from any inquiry,” Meyersfeld explains.
And that doesn’t appease Xolani Nzuza, one of the strike leaders, who told a meeting held last Sunday, June 28, to discuss the report that steps must now be taken to hold cabinet ministers to account for the deaths of his comrades.
But, despite what some regard as a rather neutered final product, hindered by obstructive police participation and even attempts to falsify and destroy evidence, Meyersfeld believes the world’s third-largest producer of platinum was lambasted.
“The best, and most surprising, part of the report is the fact that Lonmin’s role in not complying with their Social and Labour Plans is clear,” she says, referring to the deal made when Nelson Mandela’s ANC won the country’s first non-racial, democratic elections in 1994 and stipulated that mines commit to improving the lot of their workers and the surrounding communities in exchange for maintaining the mining rights they’d enjoyed under the apartheid regime.
“Perhaps the silence of the mining company responsible for the conditions that led to the massacre will finally come to an end,” says Meyersfeld of the mining giant that, until recent retrenchments, employed 28,000 workers.
Lonmin earned an average of more than $6m a day in 2012,but despite the rivers of money that flow to its shareholders around the world from tunnels far beneath the dusty veld, those who dig the ore here live in conditions described to the commission as (PDF “truly appalling” by their former chief operating officer, Mohamed Seedat.
In a single-roomed corrugated iron shack in 2012, one of Lonmin’s employees, a rock drill operator named Shadrack Mtshamba, heated water for tea on a reeking paraffin stove. A thunderstorm caused a leak to spring in his much-patched roof and after he’d placed a plastic basin under the icy stream of water, he handrolled a cigarette and spoke of the difficulties caused by the white overalls the miners are compelled to wear underground.
“We share one water tap 800m from here. To wash our overalls, we have to collect maybe four to five 25-litre containers of water,” he explained. “We wash them with our bare hands; we take cold water and wash them. They will never be white because of the stains, those black stains, even if you take a brush and you scrub it. It doesn’t ever get clean like it was.”
A miner must wash an overall up to three times to get it properly clean, and it takes three to four hours to wash just one.
Throughout the shanties and settlements around Marikana, the distinctive white overalls are spread on barbed wire fences to dry. Glancing into most yards reveals a woman bent over a bucket or basin, working the soggy white material between her glistening knuckles.
Months after the wage increases won by the strike which averaged between 7 and 22 percent, Mtshamba moved from the shack to a breezeblock room in a compound. The roof does not leak and he has electricity, but he still has to go outside to relieve himself in a communal pit toilet.
He is not alone. The hope of earning a living has attracted roughly 100,000 people from rural areas and neighbouring countries to settle around the mine.
Mandisa Yuma, a young woman from the Eastern Cape who came to find her fortune in 2011, had high expectations.
“When I first came here, I thought I would see a place. You hear of Sun City and Royal Bafokeng stadium. When people come back [home], you see them wearing nice clothes. Some other people lie, because they do not want other people back home to know they are living in a makhukhu [shack]. I never know this place is full of makhhukhu. I did not know that this place does not have water, electricity or toilets.”
When Yuma needs to relieve herself, she says: “I have to go to the bush. It is not safe. When you are still sitting, a man is coming and you have to stand up and dress yourself. In daytime you have no choice, you go to the toilet, people are passing and you stand up.”
She blames Lonmin and the local municipality in equal measure, though they both say the responsibility rests with the other.
It was the desperation of such conditions that prompted a group of women living in the shantytowns clustered around the mine to take on the World Bank over its investment in Lonmin seven years ago.
Sikhala Sonke, a women’s organisation whose name means We Cry Together, last month lodged a complaint against the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private investment arm.
In 2007, the IFC invested $50m in Lonmin; $15m of that was specifically earmarked to improve the lot of communities around the mine. Lonmin’s then CEO, Brad Mills, said that with the support of the IFC funds, Lonmin would ensure those living near the mine were made “comfortably middle class” and would be assured of an economic life long after the platinum has been depleted.
That funding was to help improve pollution, sanitation, access to water, housing, education, and women’s access to employment. An IFC advisory board was established with the stated intention of ensuring these things happened.
But lawyers for the women stated in their complaint to the World Bank’s ombudsman that: “More than seven years after the commencement of IFC funding, living conditions for the communities around the Marikana mine are dire. Both the air and groundwater are polluted by the activities of the mine. For many, there is no running water, no proper housing, no proper sanitation, no proper roads.”
Some of the affidavits from the women, whose names have been redacted because they fear reprisals from Lonmin and local government, spell out what it feels like to live under these conditions.
One writes: “I, [REDACTED], am a 45-year-old female residing at [REDACTED] Nkaneng and a member of Sikhala Sonke. I came to Nkaneng from [REDACTED] with my husband in 1996 and have been here since then. My husband is a machine operator at Lonmin.
“I live with my husband and three children aged 18, 15 and 11 in a two-room shack. The shack I live in is hot in summer and cold in winter: it is not suitable for human beings.
“We have electricity in our home and a tap in the yard. However, water does not always flow out of the tap; sometimes it comes out at night. When there is no water in the tap, my family draws water from the Jojo tanks.
“Nkaneng is dirty, the pollution has increased and the air is smoke-filled. People are always getting sick and are unhealthier than when I first arrived here.”
A 40-year-old woman says in the complaint: “When it rains the children do not go to school because they cannot walk in the mud. Walking barefoot in the mud results in cuts from unseen sharp objects in the mud…. This breaks my heart because my children will be left behind educationally.”
A walk through the informal settlement of Nkaneng underlines every point made by the women.
In the dry season the roads are deeply rutted. But in the summer, when the rains soak the soil, they are impassable. Vehicles simply slide across the slick surface until they are caught in deep, cloying mud pools. Children with plastic grocery bags tied over their feet pick their way to school; others just stay at home.
Besides these roads are thousands of shacks. Most are made of corrugated iron; others of concrete breezeblocks or traditional mud bricks. Some have large yards that allow the owners to plant maize and indigenous spinach. Other plots have up to a dozen rooms to create informal dormitory compounds, each single room rented out to a migrant family.
As part of the 2007 deal, Lonmin was to build 5,500 houses. So far, only three show homes have materialised.
And yet the World Bank was obliged by its own rules to ensure Lonmin’s compliance.
At the time of the 2012 miners’ strike, the business world called their demand for a “living wage” of approximately $1,500 “unreasonable”.
At the time, drillers were earning between $520 and $700 a month, including bonuses.
Two days after the massacre, a Lonmin rock drill operator, who asked to be identified only as Xolani, shared the details of his July 2012 salary – he took home $700.
What am I left with? I have to eat with this money, buy clothes and everything. There's nothing left after that.There's nothing left after that. I can't put money away. Even small improvements I want to make around the house are impossible.
Xolani lived in a single-room corrugated iron shack he had built himself in the shadow of the Lonmin platinum processing plant. His earnings enabled him to remit some money to his family in the Eastern Cape.
But, he said: “What am I left with? I have to eat with this money, buy clothes and everything. There’s nothing left after that. I can’t put money away. Even small improvements I want to make around the house are impossible. My mother, wife and child all know that I have a job, but what do I have to show for it? It’s a shame for me. You can work here for years and have nothing at the end.”
According to the National Union of Mineworkers, who claim to have between 235,000 and 300,000 paid members, the typical mine worker is a 30-year-old man with eight dependents.
That mineworker has to clear $600 a month just to buy sufficient food to feed them. And that doesn’t even factor in schooling, clothing, transport, a mobile phone and phone credit, or a refrigerator, television or radio.
That most miners are migrants – from other parts of the country or continent – adds to their burden, with many sustaining one family back home and another where they work. Throw in unexpected emergencies like a death or illness in the family and it is easy to see how quickly desperation can set in.
One of Xolani’s workmates and neighbours, who refused to give his name, understood it in stark racial terms: “This is our land, yet the white man is killing us underground for f*****g little money; we are tired.”
The miners were well aware of how much more their boss was earning. Then CEO Ian Farmer, took home hundreds of thousands a month. In fact, in 2011, his salary was 236 times that of Xolani’s.
The miners’ salaries have, over the course of two long and deadly strikes, been substantially increased. And their lives have improved, albeit not to the level that Lonmin promised back in 2007, when Brad Mills told Business Day the money would create “thriving” and “comfortably middle class” communities around Lonmin’s projects.
Given the horror of the massacre at Marikana, it is not surprising that the failure of the state, municipalities and Lonmin to provide dignified and reasonable living conditions has been sidelined.
But it is this squalid environment and the cynical disregard by those with the power to change it that provoked the miners to risk death in the first place.
And for the women here, who are mostly shut out of formal employment possibilities, life remains an unremitting grind, despite the World Bank’s tagline: “Working for a World Free of Poverty.”
You can follow Greg Marinovich on Twitter: @GregMarinovich