South Africa

PARLIAMENT PROTEST

Support grows for Saldanha community resisting closure of steel mill

Support grows for Saldanha community resisting closure of steel mill
Cape flats community organisation joined the Mine protest at Parliament on 29 November in solidarity over closure of Saldanha Steel (Photo: An Wentzel)

Elderly widows of miners and former miners, now pensioners, braved the heat to make their voices heard. They are refusing to be invisible.

Mineworkers and retired mineworkers are adding their voices and support to that of the Saldanha community reeling from the imminent loss of almost 1,000 jobs after the announcement of a February 2020 closure of Saldanha Steel on the West Coast in November.

On Thursday afternoon, a group of around 140 people arrived at Parliament to highlight various issues and to gain direct attention from decision-makers.

ArcelorMittal’s closure of the Saldanha Steel mill has seen a desperate community call for the government to keep the mill open. They do not want a handout, but a fair opportunity to work a mill which they believe is still profitable and viable. Their voices are being joined by others in the broader steel and mining community. They are uniting in their plight – using the opportunities they create separately, to strengthen their voices together.

This was clear at Parliament when groups from three organisations answered the call from the South African Social and Economic Development Forum (SASEDF) to picket at the gates of Parliament. The Ex Mine Workers, Mining Fighters of Namaqualand and Cape Flats Community groups arrived within minutes of each other to protest against the treatment of miners in various stages and sectors of the industry and their employment.

Elderly widows of miners and former miners, now pensioners, braved the heat to make their voices heard. Some of them struggled with the 30+ degree temperatures, taking shelter under the scrawny trees in front of Parliament – but they are refusing to be invisible. Chairman of the Ex Mine Workers group, Thembalenkosi Edwill Shibane, leading the group of around 40 mining widows and pensioners, said retired miners and the widows of miners faced many battles accessing pensions and unemployment benefits.

Widows of miners rest in the shade of a tree outside Parliament during a protest on 28 November 2019. (Photo: An Wentzel)

We have been suffering for more than 32 years now, our people are suffering – some of them are already dead. There is R30-billion which was confirmed by the former deputy minister of Mineral Resources … From 2016 until now, they keep promising but they do not pay us.” Shibane says this money is owed to mineworkers who had their pension contributions deducted religiously for years. But pensions are still not being paid and some miners died waiting for their payments and their widows are still waiting.

The Ex mine workers group had brought a memorandum and wanted to hand it over to the person they believed needed to fix their situation as part of simply keeping the promises made to the miners years ago: “The gentleman for the department of labour is here… also mineral resources was here to take the memorandum. But, we didn’t give them the memorandum, we said to them they must go fetch Mama Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, so that (she) can tell us about the money that was to be paid.”

Thembalenkosi Shibane, chairperson of the Ex Mine Workers Association (wearing a black hat) waits outside parliament to hand over a memorandum. 28 November 2019. (Photo: An Wentzel)

An intense Andrew Cloete of the Mining Fighters of Namaqualand said he was there to support all miners in the region, from Saldanha to the Richtersveld. He said too many viable mines were closing. Cloete also says we have a situation where South Africa sells raw iron ore to other countries and then buys it back at a much higher rate.

Mining Fighters represents miners from Saldanha to Richtersveld, but we are here in solidarity with Sammy Claassen and the Saldanha Steel mineworkers. We also have challenges in Namaqualand with our diamond mines, our copper and zinc mines. And we can empathise with the Saldanha employees because a month ago West Coast Resources declared themselves insolvent and 300 people were immediately jobless.”

By way of proving his point about mines being closed when they are still workable mines, capable of making a profit, he said: “Last year we dug in Kleinzee with the permission of the relevant ministry, we had 4,000 people on one bedrock and we took out and sold over a million carats of diamonds.”

This seems to be the case made by Bobby Peek of the environmental non-profit group, Groundworks, in an interview with Daily Maverick when ArcelorMittal announced the closure of Saldanha Steel. Peek said that while ArcelorMittal say they are not making a profit, it is more likely a case of the company is not making a large enough profit to its liking. Profit is often subjective, about the expectations around margins.

Protest organiser Sammy Claassen of the SASEDF said some of the protesters had travelled from Paarl, Grabouw, Vredendal (300km) and Springbok (500+km) to be part of the protest as all in the region were eager for a solution, epecially as Christmas is around the corner.

Claassen said: “It is almost end of year where people are expected to prepare for the festive season, end-of-year functions and family gatherings. Yet we see our people traumatised by job losses, retrenchment and loss of income and job security.” DM

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