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ROAD TO ELECTIONS 2024

No jobs and no services in former mining towns of Springs and Carletonville

No jobs and no services in former mining towns of Springs and Carletonville
A man opposite Gold One mine entrance less than 5km from the informal settlement of Skoonplaas, near Springs, Gauteng. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Daily Maverick visited two once-thriving mining towns in Gauteng — Carletonville and Springs — to get a perspective of how people are making ends meet amid the decline of mining activity.

Springs and Carletonville in Gauteng are prime examples of once-booming gold mining towns that were crucial to South Africa’s economy and labour market but are now shadows of their former self. Both towns, which Daily Maverick recently visited in the run-up to the general elections, contributed to South Africa being a formidable world producer of gold for more than 50 years.

In the 1970s, South Africa produced more than 1,000 tonnes of gold. By 2023, the country produced just 110 tonnes, making it only the 13th largest global producer of the yellow metal. In the investment community, gold was king as there were more than 40 mining companies listed on the JSE. Today, there are four.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024 — on the road

Several factors are to blame for this decline: exhausted gold resources/reserves, increasing cost pressures such as companies having to mine deeper while maintaining safety standards, higher electricity tariff increases, government policy blunders, organised crime risks and strike action that often results in costly work stoppages.

Behind the decline, there are people and communities near mining operations that hoped to benefit from gold resources by being employed and having an improved quality of life. However, these hopes have turned into disappointments. 

Rich history

Situated 50km east of Johannesburg, Springs boasts a rich history rooted in mining and industry. Established as a coal and gold mining town in 1904, its landscape is dotted with several mines. Yet, while the mines and industries thrive, the host communities reap little to no benefit. Instead, they grapple with high unemployment rates and widespread poverty.

gauteng mining towns skoonplaas

Skoonplaas informal settlement on 17 May 2024. It lacks basic infrastructure such as street names, reliable electricity, proper roads , ablution facilities and formal housing settlements. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

gauteng mining towns skoonplaas

Skoonplaas informal settlement. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

One such community is Skoonplaas, an informal settlement less than 5km from a gold mining operation by a Sydney-headquartered company called Gold One.  Skoonplaas, whose name has Afrikaans origins, loosely translates to “clean farm” in English. Arguably, not much in the settlement is clean. 

It lacks basic infrastructure including street names, reliable electricity, proper roads, ablution facilities and formal housing settlements.  Skoonplaas epitomises the struggle faced by those living in the shadow of lucrative mining operations. 

This extends beyond Springs, echoing in towns and communities across South Africa that host multibillion-rand mines. Despite their immense wealth, these communities are often overlooked, marginalised and left to languish in poverty.

They bear the brunt of environmental degradation, with mining activities leaving behind scars that last long after operations cease. From dust-filled air that poses health risks to open or unclosed mine shafts that endanger lives, the legacy of mining casts a long shadow over these communities. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Four years later, family of Richard Thole — the boy who disappeared down a mineshaft in Ekurhuleni – still seeks closure

gauteng mining towns mnisi pasha

Eric Mnisi and Enos Phasha are residents of Skoonplaas and were employees of the Gold One mine until January 2024. Mnisi and Phasha said they were dismissed from their jobs at the mine for partaking in a strike in late 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Eric Mnisi and Enos Phasha are residents of Skoonplaas and were employees of Gold One until January. They were dismissed from their jobs at the mine for participating in a strike in late 2023.  

During the strike, more than 400 Gold One miners remained underground for four days and some workers collapsed from a lack of food.

Mnisi said the strike stemmed from the desire by Gold One workers for the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) to replace the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which enjoyed exclusive organisational rights at the mine since 2012. 

Standoff

“At the time, the NUM was not working for us as we believed that the union was in cahoots with management and not protecting worker rights,” Mnisi said.  

A standoff ensued at Gold One between workers affiliated with the two unions. In January, Gold One declared the strike to be unprotected/unprocedural and dismissed more than 100 employees for participating in it. Mnisi is one of the dismissed workers. 

“At first, it seemed as though we would be returned to work. However, we started getting disciplinary hearings summons and later dismissals. I have been working for the mine for almost a decade and have not been engaged about my benefits [such as pension] to date. As a result, I have no income.”

Phasha is in a similar position. He left his hometown, Burgersfort in Limpopo, another mining town, in 2009 to search for employment and found a job at Gold One. Like Mnisi, Phasha was dismissed by Gold One for participating in the strike.

He said Gold One had done nothing to uplift the informal settlement near it. 

“There is nothing that the mine does for us. The only thing that the mining bosses are focusing on is taking the gold and leaving. They don’t care about people benefiting from the mining operations,” he said. 

Mnisi agreed with this.

“I have been living in Springs for 24 years. I don’t think that life has gotten any better in those years. The government does not look out for us. In the 24 years of living here [Skoonplaas], there has been no electricity. There are shacks all around us. 

gauteng mining towns skoonplaas

A resident of Skoonplaas on 17 May 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

“Gold One has not uplifted the community or provided proper housing or even installed electricity. The mining bosses do not care about us. They just take our wealth and forget about us,” Mnisi said. 

Other residents of Skooplaas said they felt forgotten as they did not benefit from the gold resources that Gold One extracted. 

Socia Kekana, originally from Lebowakgomo in Limpopo, arrived in Springs in 2012 to search for work. However, the mother of two remains unemployed. 

“Life is not good here. We are unemployed, we do not have houses, our kids do not even have a park where they can play freely and safely,” said Kekana, who is considering going back home.  

R5,000 bribe

She said she was unable to raise a R5,000 bribe to secure employment as a general worker. The bribe is said to be split between committee members, and union representatives who then put forward the names of those who pay the bribe to potential employers. 

Kekana bemoaned the government’s failure to regulate the mining industry and provide services for her community. 

“The government works better at home [in Limpopo]. If it was not for my husband and children, I would have left a long time ago. The municipality is not doing anything [as] it has been making promises, but with no delivery.”  

Springs is in the Ekurhuleni municipality which has, in the past year, been on a downward trajectory. 

In 2022/23, the municipality received an unqualified audit opinion with material findings. The Auditor-General flagged concerns about Ekurhuleni’s irregular expenditure of more than R20-million and noted the city’s weak internal mechanisms on contract, procurement and supply chain management.

In the three years before that, the municipality had received an unqualified audit opinion without findings. The only other metro to receive an unqualified audit opinion without findings in 2021/22 was the City of Cape Town. 

The residents of Skoonplaas said that in addition to service delivery failures, they had no access to reliable healthcare as the closest clinic was about 18km away. 

There is a mobile clinic service that visits the area every two weeks, although it does not always arrive on schedule and administers limited health services. 

“We are excluded as men, when you do not have money you must have at least R40 to travel to the nearest clinic,” Mnisi said.

With the apparent lack of service delivery and politicians flooding the area ahead of the general elections, many residents were despondent, but not oblivious of the importance of casting their votes. Among them was  Kekana who said: “I will vote, I think it’s important for everyone to do that.  

‘Give new parties a chance’

Asked what she would say to those who were disillusioned after all the empty promises, she responded: “I understand how they feel, but years are different. People and political parties are no longer the same as five years ago.  

“The old political parties have done nothing for us, so I think we must give the new parties a chance, otherwise we will never know. If they disappoint us, then we will give others a chance,” Kekana said. 

Another resident of Skooplaas, Pontso Mashigone, who left Limpopo two years ago, works as a machine operator at Gold One. 

“Life is just fine for me, but difficult for a lot of people around here who are not employed. 

“There are always community meetings, but nothing ever comes out of them. But I also understand that the mine cannot hire everyone,” he said. 

On the crime in the area, Mashigone said: “People steal because they do not have jobs; like everyone else, they are just trying to make ends meet.” 

Gold One’s Modder East Operations, based in Springs, was contacted by Daily Maverick about its Social and Labour Plan (SLP), which was approved by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. An SLP is required by the government from any mining company before it is granted a mining right and sets out ways for the company to uplift a community.

Gold One’s head of legal, Ziyaad Hassam, said, “In the context of the approved SLP, we have included plans to uplift the community of Springs and the communities surrounding the mine. 

“Additionally, over the past four years, the mine has empowered over 1,200 unemployed youth with portable skills; trained 34 apprentices, with another 33 currently being onboarded for training; shared internship opportunities with more than 25 locally recruited internship beneficiaries; and empowered five local entrepreneurs with business opportunities, including participation in the inclusive procurement opportunities and Supplier and Enterprise Development interventions.”  

Hassam denied that the mine failed to prioritise host communities when filling vacancies. 

Its recruitment processes, particularly those involving unskilled employees, prioritised local communities, he said. 

“It is only after ensuring that the local communities cannot provide the required skills, that the mine sources these skills outside of the local communities. Critically, all general workers are sourced from local communities through established local community structures that vet, screen and ensure that all CVs received by our recruitment office are from the local communities.”  

Gold One is one of the biggest employers in Springs, with 1,831 employees, 1,381 of whom are general workers and approximately 80% recruited from local communities, Hassam said. 

Carletonville

gauteng mining town khutsong

Community activist Nozipho Moremongwe next to the largest sinkhole in Khutsong, Carltonville on 15 May 2024. It has destroyed a main road and threatens surrounding homes. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

Carletonville, 75km from Johannesburg, faces similar problems to those of Skoonplaas. 

Carletonville is a former economic hub that is in decline because of slower gold mining activity. Many of its residents have been forced to seek employment opportunities outside of the mining industry.  

There are at least six patrollers in Carletonville and nearby communities to help fight crime. Daily Maverick spoke to patrollers in Carletonville who did not want to be identified for fear of being targeted. They are often called impimpi (sellouts).

gauteng mining towns khutsong

Former ANC councillor Jerry Ramokgoatedi and his three-year-old grandson Lethabo at his home in Carltonville on 15 May 2024. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

One said that initially they had patrolled voluntarily, with no pay or incentives. It was only recently have they had started receiving incentives of R1,500.  

She said a major issue in the area was the zama zamas (illegal miners).

“If they are not digging up closed mines, they are fighting rivalries and firing guns at each other. We are all scared of them because they are ruthless.”

gauteng mining towns khutsong

Comforted by a friend, an emotional Mamokete Molebo (78) lives in a house with a sinkhole directly below the bedroom window of her home in Khutsong. The sinkhole appeared in 2019 and continues to expand and destabilise the house during heavy rain. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

gauteng mining towns khutsong

Ramoitoi Molebo observes the sinkhole directly below the bedroom window of his mother’s home in Khutsong. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

Nontlantla Setlhodi, a resident of Khutsong in Carletonville and a mother of five, has been unemployed for years and survives on her husband’s income, which is sporadic as he is a builder who does not always have work.  

“There was an advertisement for workers needed at Seriti not so long ago but it seems the hiring goes by favour and knowing people at the right places or even having an amount of at least R5,000 to buy that job at a mine. Our councillors often prioritise their own people as well.”

gauteng mining towns khutsong

Community activists Nozipho Moremongwe and Dithapelo Mareth Pokola in an unused classroom at the Relebogile Secondary School in Khutsong that has been closed for more than a year because of sinkhole damage. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024

Sibanye-Stillwater is a big employer in Carletonville, where it operates the Driefontein deep-level gold mine (with five operating shafts). Sibanye inherited most of its gold mines from Gold Fields in 2013, managing to extend their life cycle by a decade. However, the mines are in a declining production phase as they have limited gold reserves. 

It is predicted that the Driefontein mine will reach the end of its life cycle by 2034.

Sibanye said its plan to uplift the Carletonville community was comprehensive. However, Sibanye argued that the primary responsibility of providing housing, health and educational facilities in mining communities fell on the government. DM

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