Life On a South African Mine, Decades of Squalor

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South African Mine massacre photo

South African police savagely massacred 34 miners

From scrawny dogs wandering shanties to pit toilets, workers at South Africa’s tragedy-hit Marikana platinum mine still live in miserable conditions 18 years after the end of apartheid.

The police shooting which killed 34 mine workers on Thursday has not only highlighted the brutality faced by the workers, but has also put the spotlight on their dire living conditions, many of whom live in shacks at the foot of some of the world’s richest platinum reserves.

Ian Buhlungu rents a shack built with corrugated iron and wood in a shantytown on a dusty plain outside the mine where he has no running water and uses a pit toilet.

“I want to be with my kids but I can’t,” said the 47-year-old who is a single father after his wife died of tuberculosis two years ago.

Like thousands of others, he travelled from afar to work in the mine so as to earn enough to feed his daughter and twin sons, whom he was forced to leave behind in the care of his family in the rural Eastern Cape.

“People who are not educated get a low salary and can’t afford to feed their families,” he said.

South Africa’s economy — Africa’s largest, was built on the back of cheap Black labour, workers who were harnessed to extract the country’s deep reserves of gold, platinum and diamonds.

During the apartheid era, minority White rulers forced Black South Africans to live in areas far removed from White cities without job opportunities, forcing them to become migrant workers on the mines living in tough conditions.

Even today, many mine workers live in difficult conditions.

“Life here isn’t life,” said Belinia Mavie, 25, from neighbouring Mozambique, who joined her husband in Marikana four years ago.

Her husband had travelled in 1994 from his home country to work in South Africa’s mines.

“We don’t have toilets, we don’t have water,” she said.

Men who come to work at Lonmin’s mine alone often live in the company’s hostel, part of the sprawling complex that supports the mine run by the world’s third-largest platinum producer.

But others are forced to build shacks of wood and corrugated metal to house their whole families in the cabins that neither keep out the heat nor the cold.

Goats, scrawny dogs and chickens wander in the dirt roads. Papers litter the yellowed grass. There is electricity but only shared communal water taps.

“A hundred years after mining began in this country, we still have the lifestyle of people above the ground that we had at the turn of the century,” said analyst Adam Habib.

“The levels of inequality in our society, 18 years after our transition… the lives of workers on the ground have not changed,” said Habib.

In a front page commentary, a South African newspaper noted that in mines, violence and “humiliating social conditions” persisted.

“Most Marikana mineworkers live in a slum city, the epicentre of our social and moral breakdown and a fuse for violence,” it said.

Frustration with their conditions boiled over when the miners started their strike with wage demands, with union rivalry seeing workers wooed by calls for a tripling of salaries from the current 4,000 rand ($480) a month.

“I can’t live with my wife under this situation,” said a miner who doesn’t want to give his name.

Instead his three children and their mother live at home in the Free State province. They used to visit but now they do not come anymore.

The strike was triggered over the slave wage the company pays its employees, after the massacre of 34 of the employees by South African police officers the mining company has been threatening and ordering the remaining employees to get back to work or face termination.