slow motion disaster
The forgotten miners of Aurora
Former workers at Grootvlei gold mine have received no compensation for at least eight years. Now a small group of them have won what is possibly a pyrrhic victory against the owners, including Khulubuse Zuma
Khulubuse Zuma has visited the abandoned Pamodzi Gold hostels at Grootvlei mine just once since the operation closed its doors for good in 2010.
"I don’t know what he came to do there, because he didn’t get out of the car," says former mineworker Albert Aphane. "It was in 2013. He came here, making the draai [turn] there. I think he wanted to see if the people stayed."
Aphane points to the dirt road that curves around the small, dilapidated houses and blue gum trees at the abandoned mine on the edge of Springs on Johannesburg’s East Rand.
Indeed, the people have stayed. But that was the last time these hostel residents caught sight of Zuma, the nephew of former president Jacob Zuma and a director of Aurora Empowerment Systems.
Aurora acquired Pamodzi Gold’s East Rand and Orkney operations in 2009 after Pamodzi was placed under provisional liquidation. However, the funds for the acquisition never materialised, and the mines’ assets deteriorated due to disuse and lack of maintenance.
Zuma’s quick drive-by in 2013 was, in fact, the last time the workers saw any of the people responsible for their fate at Grootvlei — including directors Thulani Ngubane, Solly and Fazel Bhana, and Zondwa Mandela, grandson of the late former president.
In 2010, the operations were closed down and the company was again put into liquidation — a process that is still in progress. Meanwhile, Aphane and others were left at Grootvlei, without any payouts, to fend for themselves.
Early last month, labour federation Solidarity announced that about 300 of Aurora’s 5,300 former employees would begin to receive partial payment of their overdue salaries, after an eight-year legal battle with the former directors.
We invited the NUM to come along … It was mind-boggling that they did notGideon du Plessis
Solidarity general secretary Gideon du Plessis says the 300 are mostly Solidarity members who typically fall into the higher-skilled categories. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) represents the rest of the workers.
When Aurora was first liquidated, Solidarity wanted to register its members as creditors, but was told that doing so was a waste of time as there was not a cent to be handed out.
But in mid-2015 a high court judgment found the Aurora directors were liable for R1.7bn in damages to be paid to the liquidators. The judge found Zuma had been negligent and the other directors had committed fraud, so all were liable.
By law, the liquidators cannot release the money to claimants who have not been verified. The unions cannot receive funds on behalf of their members; a worker can only claim as an individual and be paid directly. But submitting a claim is not a simple task.
Du Plessis says when the paperwork was supplied, Solidarity realised the former employees would need considerable help — they needed to compile bank statements and payslips and have documents verified by a commissioner of oaths.
The union hired church halls and brought in experts, including lawyers and advocates, creating a one-stop shop to help workers put together valid claims. Solidarity also asked banks to waive their charges — which can be very high — to provide the historical bank statements.
"We invited the NUM to come along," says Du Plessis. "We said to them time and time again: ‘You have to submit a formal claim, there is no other way of getting money.’ It was mind-boggling that they did not do it."
The former workers at Grootvlei claim they have not seen an NUM representative since the mine closed.
NUM president Joseph Montisetse denies that the union failed to help its members submit claims. Some forms had been completed and submitted to the master of the court three weeks ago, he says. Asked about those at Grootvlei, Montisetse says some living there may not qualify as claimants: "They will say we are not helping them, when they know full well they do not qualify."
Solidarity also trained staff at its regional offices to put claims together. This remains an option for any former worker and not just Solidarity members.
"It was one hell of a process," says Du Plessis. He says that even with these efforts, 90 claims were rejected; they have since been resubmitted.
Of the claims Solidarity submitted, 297 have been successful, with each worker being awarded R28,000, the maximum in terms of the law, to be paid in instalments.
But news of the successful claims has resulted in a flood of new ones.
The liquidator responsible for the workers, Gert de Wet, did not respond to requests for information, but Du Plessis says more than 2,000 claims have now been submitted. The problem is that the available resources are insufficient for each of these to be awarded the full R28,000. "Now there is R4.2m [in the fund], and already 2,000 claims submitted," says Du Plessis. "So it means the next batch, they will get a proportional distribution."
This is because Aurora directors have failed to honour their payment agreements with the liquidators.
The next step to recover money owed to workers is an application for Zuma’s sequestration.
A hearing was set for early this month, but was postponed due to the sudden death of his only son. A new court date is yet to be set.
If Zuma is sequestrated, all his assets will be attached — and the door will be opened for an insolvency inquiry, allowing all of his dealings to be investigated.
In the Panama Papers — a data leak exposing the hidden wealth of individuals around the world held in offshore accounts — Zuma was linked to a R100bn oil deal in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His lawyer at the time said Zuma had indeed facilitated the deal, but denied he ever held an offshore account.
To avoid sequestration, Zuma may try to reach a new deal with the liquidators.
What it means
The recent victory for Solidarity over Pamodzi Gold brings little cheer for the majority of unpaid workers
Meanwhile, those at the Grootvlei hostels continue to eke out a living, unsure if they will ever see the money owed to them.
Albert Aphane’s father Jerry, 64, is also stuck at Grootvlei. He persuaded the municipality some years back to erect a security fence around the hostels and to connect water to the property. Now he is lobbying for electricity connections for the 42 units. He also needs blankets for the older residents.
Jerry sells wood to local shops to feed himself and his children. After he has sent money to his family in Limpopo, he spends what is left on feeding those residents who are unable to work.
"Thirty-five people are dead from [disease], from TB … now I have 25 people who don’t work. They are sick, they can’t work," he says.
Though a clinic provides medication, hunger is the real problem for the unwell, he says.
Those who are well enough make money by picking through waste and selling tins and bottles. Others collect gold residue by washing the waste at a disused ore-processing plant a few hundred metres away.
They make maybe R60 a day this way, says Albert, who does this himself.
Every last bit of scrap has been taken away and sold.
Albert points to a patch of ground where he says a hostel once stood.
The only remaining evidence of its existence are holes that were dug to remove drain pipes for sale as scrap.
Albert, a former bus supervisor at the mine, is a Solidarity member. He has received one instalment of his payout, but that’s not even enough for him to go back to Limpopo, he says, never mind the many workers from Lesotho and Mozambique who desperately want to return home. As the years tick by, their prospects worsen; their passports have long expired.
Albert recalls filling in a claim form years ago, but is at a loss about what he should do now. If he ever does get his money, he will leave in a heartbeat.
"We just hear from the news they’re gonna pay us, they’re gonna pay us. But we don’t see nothing," he says.
"I don’t know. Maybe, I’m thinking, those people, they want to eat that money.
"Because the money is there. What is the problem?"