South Africa: Marikana – the Struggle for Breath and Dignity

13 AUGUST 2021

New Frame (Johannesburg)

By Bonile Bam

The Marikana area in North West province may be rich in platinum group metals, but the profits from mining them do not benefit residents, who have little hope of improving their lives.

“We are dying slowly in Marikana,” says Bongani Mpofu, 31, who stays in Maditlokwa shack settlement, a stone’s throw from Tharisa Minerals’ platinum mine in Marikana in North West. “The carbon monoxide that comes from underground by way of ventilators that are positioned in the veld blows in the direction of the community.

“That poison affects the environment and eventually kills us. Some residents are already suffering from chronic diseases such as lung infections, TB [tuberculosis] and silicosis. The mines should open their health facilities so that those who are affected could be screened and examined by the doctors.”

Nine years after the most violent and bloodiest massacre in post-apartheid South Africa, Marikana still finds itself largely undeveloped and at the mercy of the mining companies that populate the platinum belt. Previously known as Rooikoppies (red hills), it was established in 1870. Situated 24km east of Rustenburg, the town started as a railway station with a few shops next to it and, decades later, expanded to include farms where mielies and tobacco were among the many crops grown.

But today the town is known for the massacre that took place on 16 August 2012, when the police mowed down striking mineworkers from Lonmin. They killed 34 miners that day, two of those 34 were not employed by Lonmin. The total death toll for the duration of the strike is 44. Families who lost loved ones are yet to see justice.

Life in Marikana, which the striking miners wanted to improve by demanding pay of R12 500 a month, hasn’t changed much for those who remain in the mining town. Most of the families who reside here are impoverished. In Maditlokwa, homes are mostly temporary structures built from corrugated iron attached to wooden frames. The wood for these frames is collected from the bush because they cannot afford to buy materials from the hardware store. Most of the houses have no electricity or running water.

The two-room brick houses built by Tharisa Minerals aren’t any better. Josephina Khumalo, 54, originally from Zeerust, lives in one of these houses. She is one of the people who were moved from what was then a farm to make way for the mine.

“When they blast, I have a headache and feel dizzy,” says Khumalo. “Dust is our main problem. Sometimes it is difficult to breathe. Most of us have been living in these so-called temporary houses built by Tharisa for a long time. Because we see that the two-room structures can’t fit the whole family, we decided to extend it by building the shacks next to it in order to accommodate our children. It doesn’t make sense to share a bedroom with children. They deserve their own space too.

“The glasses, TV and dishes in the house break [when they are blasting]. My house, which was built by Tharisa Mine in 2012, does not have electricity and water connection. Most residents have opted to find other means to get their homes bright at night. Some people still have shacks built by the same company which promised them proper houses more than a decade ago. Now that it is winter, we feel cold. The majority of people are desperate to leave this place. There are rumours that the mine will shift us to another place. If we get land and dignified houses, we would live in peace. For now, there is no safety. Instead, we live in fear of the earth shaking any time.”

Dust and degradation

The principal of Retief Primary School in Marikana, Martin Setone, says the blasting is affecting everyone at the school. “[When] Tharisa do their blasting, they do so even during the course of the day when we are here at the school. There is often a clear indication of dust that is coming from their direction to our school. Apart from dust, the biggest challenge is the buildings. The walls are cracking. I had to close some offices because I’m afraid that any time something might happen simply because these cracks are increasing day by day. Unfortunately, we share [a] fence with the mine.”

llja Graulich, Tharisa’s head of investor relations and communications, says the company has taken good care of the people who had to be moved because of the mine. “As part of any relocation, we have in the past [been] and remain in constant contact with various statutory bodies, [including] ongoing engagement with the ward councillor, Rustenburg municipality and the human settlement directorate in the municipality, and you will have noticed in your research that any houses that we have constructed as part of any relocation undertaken have basic services as part of this relocation provided to them.”

But Khumalo’s house contradicts Graulich’s statement. And with more than 500 large trucks carrying chromite passing through the town every day, the badly damaged roads are evidence of how the community is ignored.

Yet Graulich insists the mine has undertaken many initiatives to improve life for the residents. “We have built roads within the community, which was not the case before,” he says. “We have built a community centre. We have provided skills training for the youth. We have provided bursaries for deserving students to study at higher institutes of learning.

“We have identified youth with matric, but who did not have mathematics and science, and have enrolled them at institutions to improve their mathematics and science and then into further institutions of higher learning to afford them opportunities to obtain qualifications, which will assist them to get employment.

“All job opportunities are given to community members prior to [the] same [job] being given to outside people. We have put a number of community members into our enterprise development programmes and a number of them are now providing services to the mine.”

A future without hope

Mashamaite Raserola, 31, a community activist and founder of the Marikana Youth Development Organisation, paints a different picture. The resident of Storm Huis, a shack settlement in Marikana, was among the youngsters who supported the strike in 2012 in the hope that it would highlight youth unemployment in the area.

“There is no service delivery here,” Raserola says. “You can’t find a community centre where the youth can entertain themselves. Instead, young men spend their money and time at taverns, shebeens, bottle stores, taking drugs or committing crime. When they quit school, they become vulnerable. Most of them anticipate that they would find employment at the mines. That is their main dream. On the other hand, young ladies end up being pregnant, giving themselves to mineworkers in order to have money, while others die of STDs [sexually transmitted diseases].”

In 2017, Mashamaite and a group of young people initiated a programme to assist the youth of Marikana, but it has been unsuccessful because of financial difficulties. He says no one helps them and they are targeted by the police and private security companies.

“They want to silence the activists because we are vocal and express the wrong things that are happening on the ground. It is important to note that the mines are the biggest contributors to poverty in Marikana. The youth are not being considered, the mines don’t care about our community,” he adds.

A resident who wants to remain anonymous says Tharisa Minerals spies on activists. “Private individuals from the neighbourhood are enticed to detect those who are fighting for their rights against the mine. In return, they are either offered employment in the [mine] and in the security sector or paid to do part-time jobs there.”

Khalipha Msindo, 32, from Ntabankulu in the Eastern Cape, lives in Marikana West with her three children. She left school in grade 9. “We have many challenges in our community which need urgent attention,” she says. “Our councillors do not bother to come and see where we live. Under this government we still have serious issues such as [a lack of] housing, water, electricity and roads.

“This place is dirty and unhealthy. You see children’s nappies on the streets or outside the yard. If we had dustbins and the municipality truck came to collect the rubbish, it would have been better. It is not safe to go to the toilets at night. The latest time that feels safe is around 7pm when everyone is still moving. At night, the streets are always dark. You cannot see a person following you from the toilet. Women and girls live in fear of being raped when they go out at night. There is absolutely no service delivery, no jobs in this place. Even our toilets are in the veld. To restore the community’s dignity, Tharisa should find us a better place to live and build us proper houses.”

Empty promises

The residents say Tharisa Minerals offered to build them houses when it acquired their land and they had to relocate. Instead, the company constructed temporary structures with promises to build proper houses in the future. They are also upset that nothing has come of a community trust that was established to benefit them, and approaching the high court in Gauteng has not brought clarity.

“We have been asking for the financial report but it was never there,” says a trust member who does not want to be named. “All we wanted was to know what happened to the dividends. When we arrived [at the court], we noticed that it was changed to Tharisa Security by a community member who now works in that mine.”

Celina Muguruzo, 45, a migrant from Espungabera in Mozambique, has been living in Marikana for five years. “Unfortunately, I have never found a job since arriving in South Africa,” she says. “I tried to search for it when I lost one where I looked after the neighbour’s babies. Since then, I have struggled to find a stable job.

“One of the painful situations I found myself in are my two boys who aren’t attending school because they have no birth certificates. When the coronavirus arrived, I did not have food to feed my three children. The garden helped me a lot. Last year, I relied on borrowing groceries and little items from the spaza shop and I would pay them back when my husband got his salary at the end of the month. I try to store water in bottles and buckets for cooking and washing,” says Muguruzo.

“In 2018, I started a vegetable garden at the back of my shack where I planted leafy green vegetables such as kovu [kale], tsunga [mustard greens], tomatoes, onion and spinach. To keep it green and alive, I often pray to it every morning. Customers do come to buy. It all depends on how much a person can afford. I sell a bunch for R10, but I accept even as little as R2 or R5 if a person does not have enough money.”

With a renewed focus on Marikana because of the nine-year anniversary of the massacre, residents of the town hope that the attention leads to an improvement in their lives without them having to put their lives at risk to demand it.


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