Knowledge. The final frontier.
31 July 2014 15:21 (South Africa)
South Africa

Mining: It's a man's world

  • Khadija Patel
  • South Africa
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In Marikana, various communities are coming together to better understand the trauma of the last few months and organise themselves to address the deep-seated challenges that threaten to tear their community asunder. For women in Marikana, the challenges are especially steep. It is still a man’s world. By KHADIJA PATEL and THAPELO LEKGOWA.

Last month, speaking at a Young Communists League Bua Thursdays event at the University of Johannesburg, National Union of Mineworkers chief negotiator Eddie Majadibodu listed the recognition of the right of women to work underground as one of the union’s greatest triumphs. He noted that despite the union’s efforts against sexual discrimination in the mines, he had noted that the same women who were beneficiaries of NUM’s advocacy were now turning against the union and joining the unprotected strikes that had gripped the sector. 

At a meeting of more than 100 women from the Marikana community last weekend, women came together to discuss challenges facing them. NUM rightly points out the gains made through women’s employment in the mining sector, but women are still battling to fit in.  

Siphokazi Mthathi, a member of the Women Unite initiative – a group of women’s rights activists that’s been providing support and solidarity to the women of Marikana since the August massacre, ensuring as well that the voices of women in mining communities are heard – told Daily Maverick that women mineworkers spoke about their working conditions and the general difficulties they faced with unions at the meeting. 

She said workers complained that the Personal Protective Equipment [PPE] they were required to wear was designed for men. “It is easier for a man to go to the bath room and undo a button…. For a woman, you have to take it all off,” Mthathi explained. 

But this is not the most serious problem associated with gender-inappropriate gear. Significantly, even mining minister Susan Shabangu has spoken publicly against the lack of apparel designed for women in the mining sector. She has noted that often the PPE does not fit women workers adequately, leaving portions of their bodies exposed. 

Yet, despite this high-level acknowledgement of the issue, workers feel the issue is trivialised by unions and management. “When they try and raise this with the union it is seen as a minor issue,” Mthathi said. 

The mine is also not seen to accommodate the presence of women.  “Toilets are not in very good condition; their personal hygiene is threatened,” Mthathi said. 

Worse still, Mthathi said women mine workers were not allowed to fall pregnant unless they were over 35 years old. “The company claims nine months’ leave is too expensive,” she explained. “After giving birth, women fail the physical fitness test conducted before resuming duty, because… to work underground you have to pass a heat tolerance test. It is very hot underground, and there are many heat-stress factors. So if a woman is pregnant and breastfeeding, she is not allowed to take the test, as it might harm the baby.”

Women then are forced to sit out of work for much longer than conventional maternity leave allows, leaving them without pay for extended periods of time. And even when they are able to return to work, their jobs are not assured. “In the platinum mines, most women are employed through the contractors, and contractors don’t give benefits like maternity leave pay,” Mthathi explained. “And because contractors are paid by the head by the mining companies, some women, when they come back from maternity leave, will realise they no longer have a job because contractors can’t wait [that long]. Most women will choose not to breastfeed.”

“So being a woman mine worker in the current situation often means forfeiting your reproductive right as a woman,” Mthathi said.

In its annual report last year, Lonmin said it continued to target women in mining, believing this to be “a key challenge”. Lonmin has set itself a target of increasing female participation at the mine to 10% by 30 September 2014, but the world’s third largest platinum producer believes historical and cultural factors hamper greater employment of women at the mine. “This is an area in which we face both historical and cultural difficulties, not least in making underground work appealing to women, something which has not always been easy,” the report says. 

“We are also providing women with fitness programmes to help strengthen their upper body, to minimise the risk of them failing the crucial mining fitness tests,” Lonmin adds.

Unfortunately, such an “add women and stir” approach neglects to acknowledge that the mining sector itself has done little to accommodate the needs of women, which would make it more attractive to women. There is also a wage inequality between men and women. Some studies claim that this often forces women to engage in transactional sex with men workers to supplement their incomes. The Benchmarks report released in August this year highlights the abuse working class women who work on the mines – both at the point of recruitment, when they are expected to trade sex for jobs, and on the job, when they are subject to sexual harassment and abuse by male bosses and peers.

Research within Marikana indicates the trade of sex for cash or other forms of support from men is common – both on the mines themselves and in the informal settlements that surround the mines. 

Working conditions, like living conditions, are a lot worse for women than they are for men. And so are the rewards.

“A conversation is to be started with the men in the unions to attempt to create space for women,” Mthathi said.

Case studies from around the world have drawn attention to the need to make visible the roles of women in large-scale mining operations to encourage both government and industry to adopt inclusive community development processes to ensure that mining-led development can benefit women and men equally.

Many of the women living in the settlements around the mine are entirely dependent on their spouses employed at the mine for survival. Their relationships with the mine depend on someone remaining in the employment of the mine. In Marikana, the great loss of life in recent months has left a glaring hole for many women to fill.  

“To the women of Marikana, it is not only about those who died, but also finding ways [that] women left behind are given practical support; they are now responsible for their families,” Mthathi said. 

The emphasis of discussion on women and mining usually falls on women mine workers. The problems of women actually working in the mines are more easily discernable, but in the communities surrounding the mine, women also live lives beset by severe challenges. 

The greatest feat of NUM has been the move away from the compulsion of the single-sex hostels to the option of living on the settlements surrounding mines. This was beneficial to women in the sense that families could live together, but the move towards informal settlements has also forced women and children into subliminal lives, cut off from basic amenities and services. Mthathi said women at the meeting discussed the crisis of debt, joblessness and service delivery.

“You will never be able to walk or send you kids to school when it rains in Nkaneng,” Mthathi said of service delivery challenges. 

“For you to be able to have running water into your house, you need to have R850 so pipes can be installed and directed to your house.”

Mthathi also noted that for women who live in Nkaneng, the issue of land is “far more serious than we think”. “The Tswana want them off their land and government refuses want to buy the land even though the Tswana [Bapong Tribal Authority] are willing to sell,” she said. Women are desperately in need of livelihood options specifically for support for working the land.

For now though, none are forthcoming. 

In a report on the impact of women in mining communities in Australia, British charity Oxfam noted that by undertaking a gender impact assessment, mining companies can ensure that their activities respect the rights of women and men; promote women’s empowerment and participation in community decision-making processes; and increase the benefits of mining. 

It is exactly that sort of assessment, an awareness of the effects of mining, that is lacking in Marikana. DM

Read more:

  • And what of the women of Marikana? In Amandla! 

Photo: Striking miners chant slogans at the AngloGold Ashanti mine in Carletonville, northwest of Johannesburg October 18, 2012.

  • Khadija Patel
  • South Africa


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