South Africa

Marikana Commission, Phase Two: Migrancy

By Greg Nicolson 10 April 2014

The origins of South Africa's migrant labour system pre-dates the Union, and while dispensations have drastically changed over the years, workers are still coming and going from the rural areas to the mines, with conditions very much the same. As part of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry's look at the broader causes of the 2012 violence, it met on Wednesday to look at the issue of mining and migrancy. By GREG NICOLSON.

Visit the graves of the Marikana dead and 39 of the 44 people killed in the week to 16 August 2012 lie outside of the North West. You’ll find 30 resting places in the Eastern Cape alone.

As part of the Marikana Commission’s second phase, tasked with looking at the sociological causes of the violence, the inquiry held a seminar on mining and migrancy on Wednesday at the Wits Club in Johannesburg. Academics, mineworkers, Marikana residents, and members of civil society groups criticised the system of migrant labour, which continues unabated and remains largely unreformed in the democratic era.

Dr Gavin Hartford, who for years has been involved in union negotiations and studies on labour, presented arguments published in his paper “The mining industry and strike wave: What are the causes and what are the solutions?”, blaming the Marikana violence on the migrant labour system. Living and working conditions in the mines have hardly changed in 20 years, he told the audience, as young men, predominantly from Pondoland, have joined their fathers in difficult jobs underground. Capitalism in mining remains a key symbol of Apartheid exploitation and at the same time unions are failing to represent their members, he said. It’s an explosive mix.

Since 1994, what has changed is that workers now have the option of taking a living out allowance. “This is the major economic change that happened post-94 to the migrant worker,” said Hartford. It results in migrants living split lives, both with costs. They can take an allowance to live outside of the mine hostels, usually in an informal settlement, and often pick up girlfriends or families on the way, as well as all the associated costs. At the same time, the migrant mineworkers need to send remittances back to their families at home.

Professor Francis Wilson, who has been studying the issue for many years, said a system of permanent migrancy is bound to impoverish the workers and the areas they come from. With so much of Eastern Cape’s potential workforce moving to the mines, the province’s productive capacity is reduced and it will struggle to create wealth and jobs. The cycle has continued for over 100 years, turning once healthy agricultural areas into nothing but feeding zones for the mines.

Ending his presentation, Wilson read a quote on the tenderness between mother, father and child that looked at the loving rivalry between parents raising a newborn, each wanting the baby to say either mama or tata first. “Can that happen in the migrant labour system?” he asked, alluding to how migrancy breaks up families.

The seminar, however, wasn’t defined by the academics, whose published work adds far more detail than a 20-minute presentation, but the mineworkers and relatives of the deceased at Marikana.

Mzoxolo Magidwana, who was shot by police on that 16 August and now uses a crutch to walk, addressed the seminar from the audience. “Let’s take it back to our forefathers. Some of our grandfathers died here. The reason for that was because of the oppression they suffered because they sold out,” he said through an interpreter. “Even now there has been no change because some people were lucky enough to be painted white by God, and us black.”

Black workers, said Magidwana, are disadvantaged, leaving generations of healthy men with no choice but to go to the mines where they fall ill, are injured, and come home with nothing. Mineworkers’ children see this, he said, but the boys will still go to “sell his blood” because of poverty and a lack of options at home.

A number of other speakers expressed the same sentiment and pointed out that although the event was run by white people in ties, it is they who have lived the experience. Lonmin worker Mbongeni Makubalo described his job underground: “We are being robbed, us who are working at the mines.” He said the work is difficult and dangerous and despite their hard work mineworkers are not looked after by the company. He accused Lonmin of safety breaches, ignoring worker concerns, and failing to pay bonuses as expected.

Thumeka Maswanoqana from Marikana’s Sikhala Sonke Women’s Organisation followed. She described the area where she lives, Marikana’s Wonderkop, as lacking sanitation, electricity, water and proper roads. “After the massacre we thought things would change for the better. Not a single thing has changed for the better,” she said. “It appears [the workers] will struggle forever.”

The wife of Julius Langa, killed on 13 August 2012, broke down during the seminar. “It’s like a dog has died. Nothing is being said about Julius Langa,” she cried. “What did I do wrong? Am I also supposed to die? I’m just as good as dead. You might as well bury me,” said the widow before being taken to the back of the seminar while sobbing and wailing. Her children are hungry, she said, and while the Marikana Commission is putting her up in hotel where white people are staying, that money could be used to provide for her family. Lonmin isn’t doing enough, said a representative of the widows later.

“The key contest we’re currently facing is how to share the mine’s profit with government, shareholders and employees,” Hartford said, wrapping up the conversation. Wilson said the Commission signals that we’ve arrived at a point where there needs to be strategic thinking as to how we can exist in a humane society where profits are shared. Unless we tackle that issue, SA is destined to see continued industrial action, which is already under way with AMCU’s platinum strike. The workers want change and stakeholders need to react.

How? The questions posed have been daunting SA’s mining industry for decades but there have been few solutions that detail a path out of the malaise. The Marikana Commission’s task is to evaluate the information and make recommendations, hoping they are implemented after other inquiries such as the Leon Commission failed to have any comprehensive impact.

Next week there will be a seminar on strike violence. Meanwhile, the inquiry into who is legally responsible for Marikana continues. DM

Photo: Workers underground at Lonmin Rowland Shaft. (Greg Marinovich)

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"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall

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