South Africa

Platinum strike: Miners share their ordeal

By Bheki C. Simelane 4 April 2014

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) marched to the Lonmin Platinum Johannesburg offices on Thursday. Ten weeks after the march started, the stalemate continues: the company's CEO Ben Magara said it couldn’t meet the demand for R12,500 over three years. AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa said it wasn’t even worth discussing the current offer of up to 9%. The one new development: AMCU is planning a strike fund to support workers. BHEKI C. SIMELANE asked the mineworkers how they were coping.

Joseph Mathunjwa spoke for almost two hours on Thursday, reiterating the union’s commitment to its demands and vilifying mining’s system of employment. “We want what’s ours. We were not invited by some man to be here, but by our circumstances. The people who sacrificed their lives on that mountain [in Marikana] set us a trend and we must carry that on,” he told the crowd of thousands. “The government is in partnership with all these people who are oppressing us. We’ve got to ascertain whether we are free or ‘dom’, but we’d certainly be ‘dom’ if we allowed ourselves to be oppressed any longer.”

The mineworkers chanted “yes, yes, yes” on their demands and “no, no, no” on points of criticism in the mining industry.

With Lonmin’s Ben Magara telling the miners their demands couldn’t be met and saying it would cause job losses, and Mathunjwa sticking firm to AMCU’s demands, there’s no end in sight to the strike. Daily Maverick spoke to AMCU members to see how they’re coping, without pay since 23 January.

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Photo: AMCU members sit in front of a wall with the words “With God everything is possible”.

Thandikhaya Makhohliso, 35 years old, two children

“There are a lot of painful things happening to us that people on the ground maybe wouldn’t understand as well as we do. Like everybody else, [it] is so hurtful to know that my kids have to go to school without the little that I could afford [for] pocket money. This pain is no different than one felt by a bank teller or yourself, for instance. It’s even worse for me with the peanuts of a salary that I have to toil for underground for several hours, ducking and diving from imminent danger.

“I cannot afford to replace my kids’ school uniform, but I’m on strike and have made my family believe that it’s for the best. They may starve today, but tomorrow there’ll be plenty. I have explained to them that even [if] the strike continues until 2016, I’d still be a part of it. I really don’t care how much the strike lasts, because there’s not much difference whether we work or not currently, in terms of the salary paid to us.

“We discover the minerals, process them to [the] finish, but all we get for all our efforts is a kick in the teeth.”

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Photo: An AMCU member leans on a walking stick, smoking while listening to Mathunjwa’s lengthy speech.

Lonmin miner, who didn’t want to be named, 31 years old, two children

“All our problems are conceived by a constant refusal by Lonmin to raise our salaries to R12,500. If that were solved, we wouldn’t be experiencing problems of this nature. The most painful thing is that they can afford the money, but somehow they want us to believe that such raise would compromise the company’s financial standing, which is absolutely a blatant lie.

“Imagine how much happier [sic] we’d do our work if we were getting paid proper salaries.

“I’m getting a lot of financial assistance from my sister, who works in Durban, but to be honest, we are in a daily struggle.

“I pay R600 rent but we came to an agreement with the owner of the place that I’d pay the amount in full as soon as I am recovered. I’m staying for credit.

“Though some of our colleagues have been compelled to return to work by various forces of intimidation by adversaries, I still stand by my striking mates. What’s the use? We’ve already scorched the snake; all that’s left is to kill it. So why give up now? I’d rather die fighting like others before me.”

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Photo: Marchers pray before AMCU’s official speeches begin outside Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, where Lonmin Platinum is based.

Polite Mashiloane, 38 years old, one child

“It’s so hard, but not to say that it’s been any better, because even the meagre salaries we’re complaining about weren’t making that much of a difference.

“I pay R500 rent, have a child who’s at a private college in Pretoria, and [with] my monthly installments, it’s not easy – but we feel we have to finally do it for us, our kids and the next generation of mineworkers.

“I’ll stick by my striking colleagues, because being a woman, I’m also fed up with going underground not even knowing whether I will emerge alive, all for a lousy R5,000. Yes, [it’s] lousy, considering the amount of effort we put in, plus the risks.

“I have a headache trying to figure out how I will eventually get out of all the ever-accumulating debt. I’m not going back to work. I’ll fight and rather die for a living wage than return to work without the money.

“Citizens in other nations are benefiting from their minerals. Why are we not allowed to benefit from ours?”

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Photo: AMCU members drink water from a truck outside Melrose Arch.

Albert, 38 years old, three children

“The problem that I have is my family, my kids, but I explained the situation at home and they understood. As for me, there is no difference, because it’s not like we starve any less when we’re not striking. It’s the same, which makes this one cause to fight for.

“We never asked for a lion’s share, which goes to the executives. All we [are] asking for is a fair share from a business whose success is entirely dependent on us. But in the same breath we do deserve that lion’s share, and not the hard crumbs that are being forced down our throats.

“Working is the same as not working, because we’re putting in so much of our efforts. It’s heartbreaking. It’s not easy underground, but we’d be happy to work for something better.

“All I can tell you, man, is that it’s really worth it to be part of this fight for mineworkers’ financial freedom, because really, both our government and our bosses in the mines are undermining the work that contributes so much to South Africa. It doesn’t make any sense.

“I’m determined to fight on, no matter what happens.” DM

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Photo: An AMCU supporter leans against his umbrella as he listens to Mathunjwa.

All photos by Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick.

Main photo: An AMCU member raises his fist as Mathunjwa addresses the crowd on the union’s demands and inequalities in the mining industry.

Read more:

  • AMCU takes platinum fight to heart of Amplats in Daily Maverick;
  • AMCU’s Mathunjwa: last six weeks of platinum strike was like a warm up in Daily Maverick;
  • In pictures: AMCU takes to the Union Buildings in Daily Maverick;
  • Platinum strikes: Two months into starving negotiations in Daily Maverick.
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