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Monday, May 30, 2011

Ukuluyake, the Vaal Reefs Loco Driver

In 1995 a loco accidentally went down a shaft and fell from 1,700 meters crushing a cage carrying 103 night shift workers. All were killed. It was the worst accident in the world involving this type of accident.

     (Ukuluyake Mongezi was born in 1960, in the East London township Duncan Village. He worked on Hartebeesfontein Gold Mine from 1981, when the was 20 years old, to 1984. He then worked on Vaal Reefs from 1981 to 1983 as a loco driver. He was involved in the Great Miners Strike of 1987. Because of this he was retrenched).

AT FIFTY YEARS OLD UKULUYAKE MONGEZI has retained vivid memories of his experiences from the gold mines. The last years coincided with probably the most significant event leading to the downfall of Apartheid. This was the Great Miners’ Strike of 1987 which shook one of the most fundamental pillars of the Apartheid Labour System. After the strike South Africa went into gear-change and by 1994, barely a few years after this earth trembling event of workers action, South Africa had its first Democratic Elections. South Africa  changed for ever. 

     But the Strike also had a life changing impact on Ukuluyake himself as well. He was literally chased away from the mine where he worked last, Vaal Reefs, with a free train ticket provided to get back home in the Eastern Cape, and R 600 as “final settlement” pushed into his hands. 

     This abrasive action was revenge of the mine bosses against the union and the workers for daring to challenge the gold mining industry and bring it to its knees. It left Ukuluyake with unfinished business which for the next years kept conversations and action together with his comrades in King Williamstown. The townships at that time, including in and around King Williamstown, were becoming ungovernable. Whenever, and wherever Ukuluyake met up with mates who suffered the same fate as he did by being summarily fired and sent home, they made plans to sustain themselves, tried to get Union support and became active in the ANC and SACP.

     Ukuluyake was born in Duncan Village on the 10th of October 1961. His parents both hail from the King Williamstown area where they were living on a white-owned farm. Like most families in their situation they quickly felt the pressure from white land owner for their children to either work for nothing on the farms or move elsewhere. Being born in Duncan Village, Ukuluyake was spared this grief. His parents moved to Duncan Village in the late 1950’s. He was the last born, but first born of his parents in Duncan Village. 

     Ukuluyake was 20 years old when he decided to escape the pressures of life in Duncan Village, close to East London. With many people living in Duncan Village, and even though there was considerable economic activity in East London, jobs were scarce and badly paid. Besides, there was constant pressure from the government to resettle the people of Duncan Village to Mdantsane, which was intended to become the capital of a new Bantustan, the Ciskei. The so-called “border industry” policy took effect which put the people of Duncan Village at a distinct disadvantage as they had to get special permission to work in “white South Africa”. And working in the so-called “border industrial areas” swallowed up their earnings.

     Duncan Village became a centre for resistance which in fact it had been for many years, even before the installation of the Apartheid regime. It was the last stronghold of the first South African workers movement, the ICL, led by Clemens Kadalie.

     Ukuluyake found in the mines an alternative to these hassles. Many of his friends were coming and stories about mines and mining jobs were not strange to him. Not everything he heard was attractive. The mines were dangerous, mine management, all whites with protected jobs, were cruel, but at least the black miners had  force of numbers of keep up morale. And which in the end proved to be historical as with growing militancy, there was the 1987 strike.
Hartebeesfontein Mine

His first contract on the gold mines was with Hartebeesfontein Gold Mines close to Stilfontein. After going through the normal routine of having a medical examination and basic training in the mine training centre he was found fit to work underground, as a leader of a pipe construction team. This involved laying and repairing water and compressed air pipes. With his first contract at Hartebeesfontein his talents and leadership skills were recognised. He was selected for advanced training in for a leadership role. 

     Ukuluyake’s job was hard and strenuous. Hartebeesfontein is an old mine and getting man and material to the working places through narrow and busy haulages was difficult and dangerous. Somehow he had to find his way pushing pipes on trolleys through the busy, loco-driven trains taking ore to the shaft tips and material back. The haulages are also responsible for a sizable proportion of fatal accidents on the mines. 

     Ukuluyake did a number of short contracts at Hartebeesfontein between the beginning of 1980 and the end of 1984.  
 Vaal Reefs Gold Mine

     Ukuluyake speaks of his years spent working at Hartebeesfontein Gold Mining as relatively easy and without any great accidents or upsets. Conditions were not as rough as older miners were telling the younger recruits in the homelands. Compound life had become easier. Older miners were speaking of over crowded hostels with up to 40 packed to a room. Concrete bunks were not provided with any sort of matrasses and mostly miners had to sleep on card board sheets. At Hartebeesfontein the bunks were still concrete slabs, but foam rubber matrasses were provided by the mine. Each room had 24 bunks: six piled one on the other on each wall. In the middle of the room was a coal stove with a chimney going through the roof. This provided some heat and a place to gather around for indabas to be held or discuss experiences down the mine during the day.

     The only time that was available for relaxing was on Sundays. Saturday’s were half day’s work and mostly spent doing shopping in nearby Stilfontein to buy clothes, and also do shopping for additional provisions like meat. Some of the miners would go out to the nearby informal settlements but mostly those from the homelands considered their stay on the mines a temporary sojourn and stayed in the hostels visiting and entertaining one another.
     Much the same comforts or discomforts existed in the hostel at Vaal Reefs. The town of Orkney was closer by than Stilfontein and thus a regular stop for buying of clothes and provisions.
     Once more, when Ukuluyake started at Vaal Reefs mine he was processed through a training centre at number 2 shaft. He found himself upgraded and received training as an electricity powered loco driver. While not as hard work as pipefitting, it was stressful as great care had to be taken with a loco drawing a number of hoppers from the stoping areas to the main tips close to the shaft. And at both ends there were hazards to deal with. Uncoupling his hoppers from the loco and drawing a stretcher on a specially made trolley for miners injured at the working faces occurred quite often. And at the shaft end of his perilous journeys the main ore passes presented dangers and potential fatal accidents.
     One of these shaft accidents he remembers as a very close shave. He was at the end of his shift. He stood in the queue to get to surface in the three decker lift shafts, “cages”. Each deck could take 50 persons. As the three decks filled up he stood number seven in line to wait for the next cage to disgorge its passengers on surface and return. But it never did return as there was what is called an “overwind” and the cage plus people got snapped into the headgear of the shaft. Fortunately the rope was disconnected from the cage and got wedged by a safety mechanism so that it did not plunge 2000 meters down the shaft killing all inside it. But with the sudden snapping of the cage in the safety gear in the head gear there were quite a few fatalities all the same. Such accidents used to be regular in those days. And besides, in the bad old days they were hardly ever reported.

     Ukuluyake started his first contract on Vaal Reefs in the first month of 1983. He recalls the beginning of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in the same year. The leaders that presented themselves in the early years were not miners, but judging by where they as rich businessmen, were opportunists who were making careers for themselves. Ramaphosa is singled out. The NUM as it was first established had considerable difficulties in gaining the confidence of the mine workers. They were looked at as pawns of the management for the simple reason that first dialogue was between these union professionals and mine management. Ukuluyake immediately adds that this is understandable because access to the hostels (or “compounds”) were strictly controlled.
     There were a number of smaller strikes that took place at random mines and for the most part there were no material gains made other than that mine workers lost their jobs.
     In 1986 Ukuluyake was seriously injured. Water was running out of the hanging wall and caused a short circuit in the electric cable driving his loco. He was badly burnt and when taken out of the mine given up for dead. He was immediately rushed to Klerksdorp Hospital where he stayed for 8 days before he regained consciousness. After this it took him months to convalesce. For weeks his face was deformed. The wounds from the shock took many more months to heal and to this day he still has problems with them.  
     Not long after he was back on the job at Vaal Reefs the NUM showed a solid fist of workers will. Through all the smaller victories and challenges, worker power escalated and by 1987 there was a huge strike which brought the entire gold mining industry to its knees. Salaries and working conditions were improved. Many of the more offensive working conditions like single men’s compounds were condemned and free stranding housing built for families. But this did not mean that a great many workers did not lose their jobs. Ukuluyake himself was one of these.
     During the course of the strike the bosses brought in scab labour. They drew mainly on local unemployed workers. At the conclusion of the strike the mine owners, who had won a “concession” from the union that all those in employ, especially the scab labourers, would not be made redundant. But promises were not kept. Ukuluyake and 2000 of his comrade workers told to pack all their belongings in their compound rooms and further told to convene on the Oppenheimer sports field. There they were told that they were all “fired” and had to return home. They were given tickets to return home by rail, and cash pay out of R 600. In many cases this R 600 did not even cover wages outstanding to them. No papers were given, no statements on their status with the provident fund, no records of services were provided. After some resistance they were taken out of the hostels under duress by the mine security personnel.
     Once back in Duncan Village, Ukuluyake on numerous occasions approached TEBA to regain his job on the mines. But this was in vain, he had been blacklisted. He found work at Milllers in King Williamstown. He had developed loco driving as a skill and found that this came in handy as a forklift driver. 


  1. Thank you for documenting these vignettes of real SA life.

    Any chance of highlighting anything on Kamativi Tin mine?

    My reason for asking is your Dutch roots, mining background and Rhodesian sanctions interest.

    I recently visited the mine (what's left of it) and found fascinating pieces of correspondence between Billiton management in Holland (in beautiful Dutch longhand) to their staff at Kamativi in Rhodesia.