SIKONATHI MANTSHANTSHA: Marikana workers reap fruit of bitter sacrifice
Five years after labour tragedy workers say strike was worth it
Hlulakele Zembe's day starts at 1.30am. He fills a dish with warm water, places it on a handmade wooden bench standing against the wall and bathes only his upper body. Thirty minutes later he grabs his lunch box and walks about a kilometre to the taxi rank. But on this day he goes to work without one as the Business Times team ate the extra food he'd prepared the evening before when they unexpectedly arrived at his sparsely furnished RDP house.
The taxi ride from Sondela township outside Rustenburg costs Zembe R8 and deposits him at the bus terminal, where company buses take him and his colleagues on their final ride to work.
At Impala Platinum's Shaft 10, Zembe descends into the mine to begin his shift at 4am, where he'll drill the rock until 2pm.
"We are happy, we work with a free and happy heart and, as you can see, nobody is fighting anymore. Since that long strike we see the benefits," says Zembe, who has been working for Impala since 2008, when he arrived from Ngqeleni in the Eastern Cape.
Long strike and poverty
At the start of 2014, two years after the Marikana tragedy, platinum mineworkers went on a five-month wage strike that only ended towards the end of June that year.
The strike was the culmination of a series of disputes that began as wildcat strikes led by the rock drill operators of Impala as far back as 2009. Back then the basic pay was just a little more than R2800 a month.
The strikes spread through the platinum belt, quickly drawing in workers at Anglo Platinum and Lonmin, and eventually led to the massacre of 34 workers outside Lonmin's Marikana mine on August 16 2012.
"It was worth the sacrifice of the long strike and the poverty that accompanied it," Zembe says. "Even though we do not yet get the R12500 a month pay, we are quite happy. We have received real increases, not the 10% increase we used to get."
On July 1 this year an estimated 70000 workers across Impala, Lonmin and Sibanye Gold's Rustenburg operations received a minimum R1000 a month increase to take the lowest basic pay to R9923 a month for underground workers. A living-out allowance of R2300 a month, together with R827 a month in holiday leave allowance, take the cash component of the pay to R13050 a month. The agreement expires in July 2018, when the minimum basic pay will be R10923 a month.
"Five years later [after the strike] I can say we have got our dignity back. Mathunjwa has delivered," says Zembe, referring to Joseph Mathunjwa, the president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which became the majority union on the platinum belt after the wildcat strikes.
"The people who died at Marikana, it was worth it - there are always losses in battle."
As a rock drill operator earning R12000 a month, Zembe's basic pay is just R500 short of the R12500 a month rallying cry. The R2450 living-out allowance and holiday leave allowance of R1083 take Zembe's total pay to R15533 a month.
"We are now getting paid real money. We had to fight hard and suffered as a result."
Boilermaker assistant Maphakge Williams, from Tlakgameng village in the North West, has been working for Impala since 1983. He started with a salary of R400 a month and in 2012 was getting less than R4000 a month.
"Life is good. We're really happy. Since Amcu came in during the strikes, we have received good salary increases," he says .
Outside, the parking lot displays the prosperity of the work force. There are not enough parking bays. The few covered ones are not enough for the many entry-level cars in the dusty square. The space, the size of about four soccer fields, is overcrowded and the men wear mostly branded sports shoes.
While the lives of the workers have improved, for shareholders in miners such as Lonmin, conditions have been bleak.
Shares in the Ben Magara-led miner, which has had three rights issues since 2009, including two after the Marikana massacre, are about 97% lower since that fateful day. Impala's valuation has fallen 70%, and Anglo American Platinum, the world's biggest miner, is 21% weaker.
This week Magara said Lonmin would have to cut overhead costs by at least R500-million by September 2018.
About 50km away from Rustenburg, sitting on the veranda of his unit at Lonmin's Wonderkop hostel, Bigboy Lukhele echoes Zembe's sentiments of an improved life.
"The strike helped a lot," he says. "Even though money is never enough, we have a much better life now. Amcu has delivered."
A Swazi national from Manzini, Lukhele arrived at Marikana in 1989 and found a job at Lonmin's Bob mine. A banksman assistant, in 2012 his total pay was less than R4000 a month. His July 2017 salary advice shows total earnings of R16007.38. This includes a housing allowance of R2100 and basic pay of R10 460.16.
Lukhele says he now sends R2000 every month to three of his children in Swaziland while also managing to have a good life and pay off his debts. "I have dignity and I'm able to provide for my family. Good money is what gives you dignity."
Pleased with tiny flat
He is also pleased with his tiny flat in what used to be a single-sex hostel. Until 2014 he shared a room and a kitchen with seven other men.
"It was always fraught with problems and used to cause serious quarrels living there," he says. "Other guys would be working night shift and need to sleep during the day.
"At night some men would want to chat and play their music while others wanted to sleep. A small thing like switching on the lights at the wrong time would land you in trouble."
Now Lukhele pays Lonmin rent of R220 a month for his own space of a bedroom, a kitchen and bathroom. He lives with his girlfriend and her daughter, " ... and I don't have to fight with other men for peace".
Lukhele knew one of the 34 victims of the police shooting on August 16 2012. He had met fellow countryman Stelega Gadlela while visiting his younger brother at the Karee mine a few years before Gadlela's death.
"If I were to see Gadlela and his [dead] comrades now I would tell them: I am very grateful for your sacrifices and pain. We all have a better pay and better life because of you," says Lukhele in a shaky voice.