South Africa

Sleepless under the shadow of Amplats

By G Marinovich & T Lekgowa 18 January 2013

Amplats has communicated privately to its miners that nearly half its workforce stands to lose their jobs. But the miners ostensibly remain optimistic – perhaps because they have no other option. By GREG MARINOVICH & THAPELO LEKGOWA.

POTSANENG, RUSTENBURG, January 17, 2012. When Magdalene Khunou, 33, moved into the house of her new husband in 2011, the first thing she noticed was the collection of corrugated iron shacks dotted around her in-laws’ backyard.

The shacks were rented out to miners working across Rustenburg’s platinum belt, but mostly they were employed at the nearby Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) mines.  The proximity of the marital bed to her new family prompted her to think of finding a way to profit from the housing needs of migrant workers: “I want to make money so I can build my own house.”

Her husband, a miner with Amplats, took out a R50,000 loan from Capitec Bank in September, and by November a row of six rooms made from prefabricated walling – the so-called “stop nonsense” – had been fitted with pre-paid electricity meters and a bare zinc roof. She did not even have to look for tenants; people stopped by asking for rooms and within days she had no vacancies.

The asking rate for a “stop nonsense” room is R800 – well above the charge for a corrugated iron room, which is around R250 to R300 a month. Mrs Khunou was doing well, repaying R2,500 a month without fail. While she is not sure just how much of the debt remains, it seems to be just a matter of time before she and her husband began to reap the fruits of her initiative.

Photo: Flora Moemi, right, works for Amplats, and fears losing her job. Magdalene Khunou, 33, moved into the house of her new husband in 2011, the first thing she noticed was the collection of corrugated iron shacks dotted around her in-laws’ backyard. Soon she borrowd R50,000 to build a series of rooms, and began renting out. But now the possible loss of thousands of jobs is making her fearful. POTSANENG, RUSTENBURG, January 17, 2012. (Greg Marinovich / Story Taxi)

Then, on 15 January, her husband received a letter from Rustenburg Platinum Mines Limited that made her fear she would not realise the dream of having her own house.

Dear Mr Khunou

Proposed Restructuring of Operations

It is with regret that we have to announce the proposed restructuring of our operations…

The letter goes on for 15 more pages, outlining the four mines to be placed on care and maintenance: Khuseleka 1 and 2 and Khomanani 1 and 2, as well as the Waterval concentrator and Smelter and the Union Merensky mine, with its associated concentrator. The Union North Declines mine is to face complete stoppage. Even the central services are to be downsized.

Let us be clear: this is no minor restriction; it is a bloodbath of jobs. While the press releases by Amplats have spoken of between 14- to 15,000 job losses, the notice to employees lists a possible loss of 22,629 positions. 

That is almost half the workforce, which the company says consists of 50,341 employees.

Amplats will, of course, try to find alternative positions for as many as possible, but anxiety and bravado stalk the Bushveld in equal proportions. Mrs Khunou fears her investment will become a trap. “I am worried about the loan. A lot.” 

Around the corner from the Khunou home, 33-year-old Amplats employee Noxolo Mtyhotyhwana waits for a ride to Khomanani 1, where she works underground as a belt operator. She refused to accept the notice from the mine when they tried to give it to her. She is unsure of how many jobs are on the line, but her brave demeanour drops on hearing the numbers. “I am desperate,” she says, explaining that she is a single mother originally from the Eastern Cape, looking after her elderly parents and her 13-year-old daughter, whose father passed away in 1997. 

She lives in a rented corrugated iron room, unable to afford the dubious luxury of a dwelling with prefabricated walling. She, like her fellow workers, has decided to pull back from the threatened strike and wait for the unions to mediate with Amplats. While she is not a member of any union, she feels that the giant NUM’s rival AMCU best represents the miners here. Hope overcomes despair and she smiles, sure that a positive outcome will be found. “Nobody believes the mine will be closed.”

Nearing the mine gates, her optimism is further buoyed by a female general worker cheerfully touching up the paintwork at the entrance, who calls out “We will not close!”

Others, like a pair of stick thin jobseekers from Zeerust, believe it is fine if the mines fire the current workers. The mine will rehire, they are sure, and then it will be their turn to have work.

At a nearby shebeen selling umqombothi, veteran miner Sohomas Mbekisani, 59, back from a shift at Khomanani, drinks deeply from a shared tin of the sour sorghum beer. Mbekisani started out as a rock drill operator 37 years ago at Amplats, and is sure the mine will continue to operate. 

Photo: At a nearby shebeen selling umqombothi, veteran miner Sohomas Mbekisani, 59, back from a shift at Khomanani drinks deeply from a shared tin of the sour sorghum beer. Rustenburg 17 January 2012. (Greg Marinovich / Story Taxi)

“They wanted to close the mines, but we stood against that, and we are now back to work. It is NUM that is making sure we lose our jobs.” 

Of the men he started out with, “[s]ome died, some are on pension, but they all left here poor.” Just like he himself will retire poor, he predicts.

One of his younger, and unemployed, fellow drinkers, Jomba Gunyazile, also sees change as a possible opportunity. “ I came here to find employment. It is us now who have the energy for drilling – I do not mind drilling the machine non-stop.”

Others are less sure. The moneylenders appear unsettled and refuse to answer any questions about how they will reclaim their loans should the miners lose their jobs en masse. Farlan Lekanyane is a traditional healer, who specialises in curing miners of ailments that he says Western doctors incorrectly diagnose as TB, thus forcing the miners to be laid off work. 

Photo: Farlan Lekanyane is a traditional healer, who specialises in curing miners of ailments that he says Western doctors incorrectly diagnose as TB, thus forcing the miners to be laid off work. No stranger to seeing the positive side of things, Lekanyane is less than confident in the mine’s future. The healer is busy looking for a new place to set up his practice. RUSTENBURG, January 17, 2012. (Greg Marinovich / Story Taxi)

No stranger to seeing the positive side of things, Lekanyane is less than confident in the mine’s future. The healer is busy looking for a new place to set up his practice.

But many of the miners, meanwhile, have nowhere else to go. DM

Main photo: When Magdalene Khunou, 33, moved into the house of her new husband in 2011, the first thing she noticed was the collection of corrugated iron shacks dotted around her in-laws’ backyard. Soon she borrowed R50,000 to build a series of rooms, and began renting out. But now the possible loss of thousands of jobs is making her fearful. POTSANENG, RUSTENBURG, January 17, 2012.(Greg Marinovich / Story Taxi)

Gallery

ANALYSIS

Zondo Commission will be long and thorough – will it outlast President Ramaphosa?

By Ferial Haffajee

Microwave popcorn is nothing special. You can have the same effect with normal popcorn kernels and a brown paper bag.

0