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Friday, July 4, 2014

Mineworkers: a forgotten people

Amathole Ex-miners association home meeting, Nxaruni group.

Digging for Development: The mining industry in South Africa
and its role in socio-economic development 2014



(The ex-Mineworkers Association of Amathole)

This document has been produced with the financial assistance of the Embassy of Sweden.
The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of the South African Institute of Race
Relations and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the Embassy
of Sweden.

Once the IRR staff were able to get beyond the arguments about mining policy, ownership, resource prices, and the like, the true nature and socio-economic conditions of people who work in the mining industry became obvious.

Mineworkers, a forgotten people, the fifth chapter reports the results of the IRR’s interviews with mineworkers in their own hostels, around the infamous ‘mountain’ at Marikana, and in their homes in the Eastern Cape are reported. In almost all cases the mineworkers are interviewed anonymously, very often because they expressed the fear that they would be persecuted for speaking about the industry. In many cases the views expressed by the mineworkers themselves surprised our researchers and at times contradicted those of civil society organisations and trade unions which claimed to speak on their behalf.


Our research team did not rely simply on miners currently employed in the sector. It went further back and was able to identify mineworkers who had been employed as far back as 1940. In an interview in the Eastern Cape, the following story was told to our research team by a group of mineworkers who had been mostly employed in the mining industry prior to 1994. They explained how they had been expected to sleep in carved concrete holes that were meant to operate as bunk beds. They were given only one blanket to sleep with and had to use their arms as pillows. Our team was told that there would often be between twenty and forty men in one room. A fire, or imbawula, would be lit inside the room to provide heat in winter. The doors were never locked and there was never any security for the miners’ possessions. They were forced to shower in very large shower rooms. Occasionally the water was hot but sometimes only cold water was available. It was also explained that at times there was no water available and that the mineworkers had to go and wash in a local dam. One mineworker told the story of running away from a mine in Kuruman in the 1970s because conditions were so bad. He explains that he was caught and taken back to the mine where, as punishment, he was locked up in a cell which had been sprayed with water to prevent him from sleeping on its floor.

Other miners told stories of how they would be denied food for indiscipline. When they did eat, the meals were very meagre. One man explained how they would be typically fed on pumpkin that was unpeeled and unseeded. This was combined with carrots and pap and mixed with a spade. Sometimes there were offcuts of meat (the man said on Wednesdays) but this was rare. The miners were never really sure what type of meat they were eating because it was so low grade. One man said that the quality of food was so poor that he wouldn’t feed it to an animal.

A man who had been a barman at a mine clubhouse said he had been able to obtain far more nutritious food including fruit and milk because of his relatively senior position. However, this applied to only a select few mineworkers. Our team asked the focus group of former mineworkers what mining companies could have done differently to improve their socioeconomic circumstances. Here the answer was unanimous: they felt that they had worked very hard to build the mining industry but had never been compensated fairly in terms of wages and benefits.

Many miners complained that even where they had wages deducted for things such as unemployment insurance, they were never paid out for those deductions after they left their mining jobs.

A particularly powerful insight into the nature of the mining industry prior to 1994 came when it was explained to our team how mineworkers had been trained. It was explained that the workers had to play a game called umlabalaba to test their cognitive skills. They also had to do ‘heat tests’ and the like and, depending on how they performed, would be assigned to certain jobs on the mine.

On the question of trade unions, it was explained to us that mineworkers of the 1960s and prior years had never heard of such a thing while those of the 1970s associated trade unions with white people only.
Those employed later than the 1980s said that they knew of the NUM, for example, but that they had very little confidence in it or in trade unions in general. When pushed for an answer as to why they had so little confidence in trade unions they responded that, despite paying dues and being members of unions, mineworkers had continued to lose their jobs. This lack of faith in mining unions was a point thatour team picked up on during interviews it did at Lonmin’s Marikana mine. Here it was explained to us that the NUM does not appear to have the interests of mineworkers at heart. It was also explained that AMCU listens and reports back to workers after a meeting and takes their interests seriously, whereas the NUM does not.

On the question of second families, which is a point that had been highlighted for us by the other three sectors mentioned in this report, the mineworkers and their families who were interviewed in the Eastern Cape said that this is a relatively new phenomenon that affects younger mineworkers. Those who mined prior to 1994 experienced such harsh restriction on their movements such that there was little chance for them to establish relationships with women outside of the mine compounds. They also explained to us that their wages would often be retained by the then migrant recruiting company, The Employment Bureau of Africa (TEBA), until they had completed their contracts. They would thus have had no financial means with which to support a second family. The miners also said that in the old days they would resist being “swallowed by Gauteng” and that when they had completed their contracts or saved enough money they would go home to support their families.

Circumstances in the post-1994 era do appear to have improved appreciably from those prior to 1994.
For example, during our team’s (unauthorised) visit to one of Lonmin’s mining hostels we were able to walk around freely and see the current living conditions for ourselves. Here, a very different picture greeted us to that of the concrete bunks and cold water showers that had characterised much of the mining industry in decades past. Our staff observed accommodation that, while not attractive, was relatively clean, safe, and comfortable. In some cases we observed mineworkers living in rooms that housed up to nine men, showing that, although living conditions have largely improved, hostel-style accommodation is still widespread. Our team also made its way into the men’s bathrooms, which they described as unpleasant and not as clean as the sleeping quarters. According to one team member the circumstances in those bathrooms were “grim”: there were no doors on any of the toilet and shower cubicles, and it appeared as if the facility hadn’t been properly cleaned or maintained in a long time.

One mineworker we interviewed at Marikana explained that he was a twenty-year veteran of the mining industry. He had suffered a serious injury but had been placed by the mine in a less physical position. He said he receives a livingout allowance of R1 900 a month and has chosen to live in a shack with his family — a wife (who is unemployed) and four children. In an average month he spends up to R2 000 on groceries and a further R1 000 to ensure that his children get to school. He explained that he receives a medical aid package for which he pays R600 a month and that this allows him full cover at the local mining hospital and three further doctor’s visits a year. This cover relates only to him. He earns a salary of R8 000 a month before tax, inclusive of his living-out allowance.

A second mineworker told a similar story. He earns approximately R5 000 a month. He sends R3 000 of this money home to support his wife and three children in the Eastern Cape. His wife is unemployed.
Our team sought to gain an insight into how hard it is for a man like this to live in a place like Marikana.
He explained that for breakfast he typically eats porridge and six slices of bread, for lunch pap and gravy, and the same for dinner. Meat and vegetables are limited.

A third mineworker, a rock drill operator, earns R6 000 a month after deductions, which include R1 950 a month for his accommodation, transport, and food. Mineworkers who live in the hostels receive R950 worth of food coupons for the month, which typically only last for two weeks, forcing them to spend more money to supplement their meals. It was explained that three secure meals a day for the month would be preferred to the current coupon system. The  mineworker in question is from Mpumalanga, where he has a wife and two children. He is a resident in the single-sex quarters of the mine and explained that no one is happy to live there. He is currently on a waiting list to get into the mine’s family units but he said access to such units depends on how long you have been employed at the mine. There was also the suggestion, although we were never able to verify this point, that there is a certain degree of corruption at play and that mineworkers have to bribe someone in order to get access to better accommodation, namely the family units.

Our research team also saw a number of the coveted family units. Here they interviewed a female miner. She explained that she lives in the family unit with her husband and two children. Her husband also works on the mine. The circumstances in these family units are vastly different from those in the singlesex quarters. In the case of this specific family, for example, the two-bedroom unit was furnished with a satellite television decoder, a television, an exercise bike, a fridge, and a washing machine. It also had a bathroom, consisting of a toilet and bathtub.

Our team interviewed a second family, from Mozambique, which was also housed in one of the family units. The circumstances were again quite pleasant and the man in question lived there with his wife and young child.

An insight our team was able to gain was that the circumstances of miners vary considerably both over time and within the same mine. The harsh environment of the mining dormitories we observed was very different to the upscale and pleasing environment of the family units we were able to observe. Commentary on the socio-economic circumstances of mineworkers is therefore complex. It is very obvious from our investigations, both in the Eastern Cape and on the mines themselves, that a ‘one explanation fits all’ approach is to greatly oversimplify the questions this report is trying to answer.

If the family units we observed are the future of the South African mining industry then that industry is to be congratulated because very little fault can be found in providing that level of quality accommodation for one’s work force. However, it remains the case that such accommodation applies to a minority of mineworkers.
Our team also visited shack settlements on the outskirts of mines in the North West. Here, we interviewed mineworkers who live in truly appalling circumstances. For example, not all shacks are connected to taps with running water. We were told by one man that a fee of R800 is necessary to get the local municipality to install a tap near his shack.