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Monday, January 23, 2012

From migrant miner to trade unionist

King Kwayimani, back to blackboard, in foreground Dr Costa Gazi
Msobomvu, Nxaquni  - 24 January 2012 2010
King Kwayimani was born in Newlands on the 2nd of May 1942. His parents also hailed from Newlands. He started working on the mines as a migrant when he was twenty years old. His first migrant contract he worked on a coal mine, Platberg, in the Ladysmith area. Thereafter he worked at Steyn Gold Mine, close to Welkom.

The mid 1970’s were years full of tumult in Southern Africa generally and South Africa in particular. This did not escape the attention of Kwayimani. In 1974 The Portuguese colonial regime collapsed and migrants from Mozambique spread the message of the struggle against apartheid-colonialism encroaching on the borders of South Africa.

These events had a radical impact on Kwayimani. He left Steyn Gold mine in 1977, a year after he got married. He has three children. A first born son (1978), a girl born in 1985 and a last born girl who came in 1990.

Like all migrants, much of Kwayimani’s free time in the mine "compound" was spent socializing with fellows from the Border Region. There was much talk about distress with families and friends on the home front due to their persistent harassment and removal to areas planned to become “independent Ciskei” by the Apartheid Government.

After Kwayimani finished his contract at Steyn Gold Mine in 1977 he did not return again to the mines. He took a job a Ware’s Cash and Carry in East London and soon became a very active member of the South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU) that sprang up among workers in East London. Working at Ware’s was not exactly what he most wished to do but he had to provide for his family. Being on the mine in the Free State was deeply alienating, stressed about the unrest situation at home and the well being of his family. His first love was the land and farming.

But farming was far beyond his reach and the best be could manage was to stick to his ambition, was keeping a few head of cattle and goats, do a bit of gardening, and make the white traders rich. He was deeply involved in the trade union and never gave up on the idea that he would see liberation in his lifetime. In those days the settler-colonial system was still visible from the legacy of British settlers who occupied land in what was previously British Kaffraria, while German mercenaries who had fought for the British in the Crimea war were “given” land in between the very many villages on both sides of the Transkei River. These settler farms formed the economic backbone of the Border region, providing trading stations as supply lines for the rural subsistence farmers, providing employment and building towns like East London as agricultural service centers. The Newlands area, informally regarded as being in the Ciskei, was administered from Mdantsane, a large township established by the Apartheid Government.

Kwayimani was a rugby enthusiast and regularly went on tour as part of the Steyn Gold Mine rugby team to other mines in the Free State and beyond. This gave him an ideal opportunity to catch up on home news and broaden his knowledge of the struggles unfolding back home in the Border Region generally. There was growing disgruntlement and resistance to the idea of setting up of the Bantustans. The Transkei at that time was due to be set up formally as an “independent State” in 1976. His greater and more immediate concern was the constant news from his kindred rural village folk around East London, including Newlands, about being forcibly evicted from their homes and resettled in what was to become another Bantustan, Ciskei. The Ciskei eventually became a formality in 1981 but a very ugly one. Rural villages around East London, including the large black township Duncan Village, were in revolt against the Apartheid government’s plan to “evict” ALL black people from “white” areas and resettle them in distant townships and Bantustans. Thousands were simply dumped in the so-called "homeland", Ciskei. A documentary produced by a Jesuit priest Cosmas Desmond entitle "Lest Grave at Dimbaza" gave a graphic picture of this human catasrophe unfolding and evoked huge international outrage. The narrow Border Region which would remain part of “white” South Africa was to be a buffer between the Transkei and Ciskei extending from East London to Aliwal North.

Kwayimani found work at a wholesaler Ware’s Cash and Carry. His earnings did improve, in comparison to the slave wages paid by the mines: at the Platberg Coal Mine he earned 35c per day; at Steyn Gold Mine he earned 68 cents per day! He was soon in the forefront agitating for better and a better future. The trade union in which he was a leader became the main catalyst for change and eventually liberation in the Eastern Cape. SAAU was heavily repressed and many of its members jailed or murdered. Active membership of this union cost him dearly and he was one of the main victims of repression both from the Ciskei and South African Police. He often was detained.

Most migrants coming back from the mines returned disgruntled, demoralized and physically worn out. For Kwayimani it was different. He was among the first cadres to initiate SAAWU as a social trade union that trail-blazed liberation from Apartheid, from the Border Region and South Africa at large as the workers movements gathered
Work and life after the gold mines

After the tumultuous years of struggle there followed a number of years of great expectations in a liberated South Africa, which came about with the first open and free general elections in 1994. However in the years that followed liberation under President Mandela great expectations soon were dashed. Change would not come over night. South Africa was still very much in the hock of foreign investors. What dismayed many militants who had worked as migrants on the mines was their scantily being cast aside at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In fact they were not heard while their bosses in the mining corporations made lame excuses that they found apartheid bothersome and wished to distance themselves from it. What dismayed the militants even more was that the ANC government did not challenge the foreign debt made by their previous oppressors, despite the fact that these were declared odious by the United Nations. In the Eastern Cape many militants stuck to their guns and ratcheted up their militancy in the spaces they occupied and especially in the trade unions. But many also became members of the Jubilee 2000 movement to agitate internationally for the total cancellation of the third world debt. East London was the first chapter of Jubilee 2000 in South Africa.

Veterans regularly attend meetings, such as those of Jubilee, keen to make sense out of their lives and share their life experiences. It was their labour afterall upon which the South Africa economy was built. While the true implications of this was not immediately clear to them before liberation, they nevertheless look back at the past which in modern post-1994 South Africa seem like something out of a horror movie. One perception that escapes none of the veterans are accurate recollections of the conditions under which they worked and lived in the mines during apartheid, the paltry “wages” they were paid and the constant agonizing about their family back in the poor and super repressed homelands. 

Most can remember the exact amount of their first pay, the amount of their last pay, and most also remember what sort of compensation they got for losing limbs or being made redundant for terminal illnesses, like pneumoconiosis. One veteran mentions 10 “pounds” (old British money system) paid to him as compensation for losing a leg and getting sent home. One veteran brought three copper coins, in his day called pennies, which was his daily pay. How is it possible to live on a few pennies per day? What are pennies? How was it possible? Years later there were no more pennies, but cents per shift with virtually with the same buying power!!

When it was explained to the old veteran that these three pennies were worth less than a cent today they are not surprised. Young comrades present could not believe what they were hearing. Flabbergasted the veteran commented: “but this was pay for a whole shift! I saved these pennies in a place I had forgotten about and only found them when looking for my old papers and preparing to come to apply for compensation for my crippled ankle".

This “three pennies” story is indicative of the relationship between wage labour and capital in the gold mines. The fact is that because of cheap labour, job categories remained unchanged for donkey years while white South Africa became rich and was looked upon as a “1st World Country”. Three pennies per shift worked in the 1940’s was not much different from the 68 cents Kwayimani was earning at Steyn Gold Mine in the mid 1970s. It is a fact that that for many decades until 1990, if not later than that, wage increases were non existent. Reason? There was no reason to improve the productivity of labour with technology because labour was cheap. The cheap labour setup was fine, it was profitable for the Mine Corporations, therefore remained unchanged!

It is therefore not surprising that this cheap wage labour policy went hand-in-hand with jobs that also remained unchanged for up to 100 years. Since mining started big time in Johannesburg in the 1880s, the only advances made in utilizing labour optimally was machine drilling taking the place of “hammer boys”. “Hammer boys” had to chisel holes for blasting by hammering away at a piece of steel the size of a school ruler to make a hole at most 20 centimetres deep per shift. If it were not so time consuming hammer “boys” would still be preferable to the Mine owners because their hammer “boy” labour was cheaper than installing compressed air pipes and machines. Machine drilling may be faster, it cost less labour but cost a lot of capital investment.

So many jobs in the mines stayed the same for almost a century of years. Kwayimani was a “timber boy” at Steyn Gold Mine. His job was to pile up wooden mat packs from the floor of the stope to the hanging wall, and hammer in wedges between these sothat they would not be dislodged during blasting. The object was to prevent hanging wall collapses to keep workplaces open to extract broken rock. Timber “boys” worked under Team Leaders (in the old days called “Boss Boys”), as part of a "stoping gang".

But the work of keeping the roof of the stopes from falling down and killing people was not Kwayimani’s only job. It also became more complicated and specialized. Cracks in the earth, called “faults” made mining through them very dangerous. This meant erecting complicated support timber and steel roof bolts to keep tunnels and stoping faces open.

While the job of timber “boys” still exist, there are technological advances which has made other method of controlling hanging wall collapses possible. One such advance is being made at the Gold Fields South Deep Mine, where a different system of mining, called “rock de-stressing” is well advanced and could reduce the need for timber “boys”. And this thanks to the fact that labour is becoming more protected, and more expensive, causing a century of Antiquated mining methods to be develop to do away with labour and jobs. 

Kwayimani: Community Unionist

Were there any strikes on this mines? Yes, there were but well before the time of our veterans no no strikes of any real significance since the great miners’ strike of 1946. Before then, in the early 1900’s there were strikes which brought the whole Johannesburg to a stop. But because gold was such a strategic product upon which the entire South African economy was built, State repression to prevent them recurring was the rule. A strike by white miners in 1922 ended in a civil war and was put down with military force. Within the same time period black workers came out on strike but quickly suppressed. Memory from our very old veterans recall the black miners’ strike of 1946.

Any strike action in the period since 1946 was well near impossible. Any unrest quickly spilled over into disorganised action like messing up kitchens, burning of beer halls or faction fighting. Due to the way in which migrants were controlled in compounds organizing a strike was well near impossible. But this repression might have prevented strikes on the gold mines themselves, but still they were in fact bottling up anger for political and strike action undertaken by radical elements in the rural areas. An example of this is Kwayimani himself. At the mines there was a lot of talk about political freedom, strike action and trade unionism, especially during the turbulent seventies. So when Kwayimani returned home after his time on the mines he was part of a type of trade union which could only establish itself in the Border Region: the community activist trade union SAAWU. In 1990 Kwayimani himself was part of a strike action against Ware’s Cash and Carry that lasted for more than a year.

Steyn Gold Mine Today

Most veterans alive today, if not all have histories in the mines that cover roughly the period 1970 to 1985/1990. Oral histories today outside of this bracket are rare. Those born in 1940s are today in their late 60s having reached a lifespan limited by occupational diseases picked up in the mines.

Before 1974 gold mining in South Africa was very much like it was at the beginning of the 1900s. Although there were some key inventions, like the introduction of jack hammers to replace hammer “boys” and electric winch scrapers. The gold price was limited by international convention to US $ 35 per ounce. Once the price became free to find its own level on the market, miners got a rough ride: if prices were up mines thrived; if prices went down miners were made redundant.

Then came 1994. According to the Freedom Charter the mines and all the wealth of the country belonged to all the people who live in South Africa. But dealing with the big Corporations became problematic: the biggest of them, like Anglo American, ran away and listed their main shareholdings on the London stock exchange.

And then came Black Economic Empowerment. High flying comrades of influence found it possible to borrow money and buy shares in big companies, and put up the same shares as security with the banks lending the money. Many of these comrades have gone bankrupt. Welkom Mines was first bought by African Rainbow Minerals, which was later taken over by PAMODZI, which in turn soon went bankrupt. PAMODZI then swallowed up by Harmony Mines.

Harmony mines owns its own refinery based on a new process to extract gold from rock. This is much cheaper than the ordinary method used by other mines. This has enabled Harmony Gold Mines to bring down its costs and buy up marginal mines with low ore values. This again will lead to job losses!