Clung. Clung. Clung … Clung. Clung. Clung! The brick in Fernando Mchetumbo’s hand makes a shrill thud as he pounds and flattens empty tin cans in the concrete yard of the Kroondal Hostel. Nearby, Bernard Koteli beats out a more melodic sound as he uses an iron rod to grind salt into a traditional remedy for his chronic tuberculosis.
Mchetumbo is originally from Inhambane Province in southern Mozambique. Koteli hails from Lesotho’s Leribe District. They are among the 150 mostly migrant former mineworkers who have lived for more than a decade in the hostel, 12km east of Rustenburg in North West province, waiting to be paid pension funds that they say stretch into the millions of rands.
Now, the workers face eviction. On Tuesday 5 November, the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein will hear an application by Sibanye Stillwater to have them evicted. James Wellsted, a spokesperson for Sibanye, says the company will argue that the hostel is not the workers’ home, and that Sibanye is “not obliged to provide [the workers] with accommodation”.
Afterlife of a strike
When Aquarius Platinum began mining platinum at Kroondal in the 1990s, it outsourced its labour to Murray & Roberts Cementation. The Kroondal Hostel was built to house some of those workers.
In 2009, the workers, earning as little as R1 800 a month at the time, embarked on a strike demanding monthly wages of R5 000. When their union, the National Union of Mineworkers, finalised negotiations with Murray & Roberts, however, it agreed to a 10% increase in wages instead. Frustrated, the 3 621 workers refused to return to work until their demands were met. They were dismissed.
Aquarius promptly attempted to evict the dismissed workers from the Kroondal Hostel, allegedly because there were plans to tear down and redevelop the hostel. But in November 2009, the Land Claims Court ruled that the workers had occupation rights at the hostel in terms of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act. Sibanye has since bought Aquarius’ Kroondal operations and, with it, has taken over the hostel’s lease as well as the continued efforts to evict the workers.
Where once 400 workers lived at the Kroondal Hostel, only about 150 remain. Those who are left say that more than 200 of their comrades have died over the past 10 years, mostly as a result of tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases they contracted while working underground, and hunger. Mchetumbo and Koteli are emaciated from a decade of malnutrition.
It is part of the reason that all of the men living in the hostel have learned how to build a coffin, albeit reluctantly. “It’s not something normal, to know how to make a coffin,” says Teboho Mahao. When the workers are unable to raise the funds – mostly from local church groups – to send their deceased comrades home, the bodies are wrapped in blankets and placed in self-made coffins before being buried in paupers’ graves in the clay-like soil of the graveyard in the nearby Waterkloof township. One side of the graveyard is dominated by former Kroondal workers.
The workers have stayed on at the hostel in spite of the alarming death rate, primarily because of the pension funds they claim Murray & Roberts owe them. In some cases, workers were underground at Kroondal for decades and are owed up to R150 000. Ed Jardim, a group investor and media executive at Murray & Roberts, failed to provide New Frame with evidence of his claim that the outstanding pension funds have been paid to the workers.
During the decade-long wait for their unpaid benefits, the workers have survived by trapping animals, doing meagre piecework jobs and waste picking. Mchetumbo, for instance, collects R3 for every kilogramme of tin cans he flattens on the hostel floor to make them easier to transport. The crude work is not what he is used to doing. When he was employed on the mines, he performed highly skilled work as a diesel mechanic. Before that, he mended Frelimo vehicles during Mozambique’s civil war.
Like most of the workers at the hostel, Mchetumbo has not been home since 2008. He knows little of what has happened to his children during that time, only that three of them have died and the others have been taken out of school. Mchetumbo says that living in Kroondal, which he calls a “prison”, has stolen his memories of his family. “Now I am an animal. I am a heartless person. I used to love my family so much, but now I only focus on surviving here. Maybe one day I will return there and find my heart.”
Inside the hostel
The landscape around the Kroondal Hostel is badly bruised by extraction. Every piece of land seems to house a chrome or platinum mine shaft, each of them droning like a giant, sleepless steam boat. Trucks from Barloworld and other international logistics companies trundle past the hostel day and night. In the evenings, the gravel road sparkles as the setting sun catches the millions of chrome particles settled in the dust. The air is toxic.
Inside, the hostel’s 20 rooms have prefabricated walls that are beginning to rot in places. They are hot in summer and cold in winter. The steel-frame beds with their piles of foam mattresses are neatly made. They were once triple bunks, but the dramatic death rate at the hostel means they have been reduced to single bunks.
Some of the rooms show signs of the efforts the workers have made to earn a living since their dismissal. Piles of herbs are drying on sheets of newspaper near the bed of Ernest Motaung, 45, a former rock drill operator from Germiston who offers traditional healing services to mineworkers in the area. On other beds, the hides of cats, monkeys, jackals and rabbits are drying. Gathered from the traps some of the workers set in the surrounding veld, the hides are sold as bracelets and hats, and the meat is cooked over coals or in a soup. It is the only meat eaten at the hostel.
Like many of the workers still at Kroondal, Moshala Shange’s wife left him in the decade following his dismissal from the mine. “We are mobile corpses,” he says. “We have nowhere to go. Where will I go? It’s better I die here with my brothers.”
Many of the workers first contracted tuberculosis while working underground. But living with the disease has not been made any easier since their dismissal. They are no longer able to rely on the medical treatment provided by the mines and tuberculosis medication demands a full stomach, which is scarce at Kroondal.
Living together in the hostel has also increased the chances of contracting the disease. “It is painful to watch the thing that is killing him, and know that it can enter you,” says Teboho Mahao, 48. He explains that when a worker falls gravely ill, others will bathe him and cook for him, and sometimes sleep alongside him “to show we are not alone, we are one bundle”.
Others maintain hope, however. Ishmael Setlaba, 64, is one of them. The green Living Bible clutched in his hands is as tattered as the cream overall he is wearing. Setlaba once wore it on his shifts underground as a rock drill operator. Holding up the worn book, he compares the workers at the hostel to “the Israelites in Egypt”. And like the chosen people, Setlaba remains certain that “God is on our side”.
Even Mchetumbo, who says he has been turned into an animal by Kroondal, keeps the hope of a better life alive. Before he was a mineworker, he was a Frelimo soldier, and before that, he grew up farming with his mother. She taught him how to grow cassava, peanuts, mielies, oranges and mangoes. As a tribute to “the garden I used to have at home”, he has planted a small garden of chillies, tomatoes and beans in tin cans and plastic bottles outside his hostel room.
By 5am the next morning, Mchetumbo will leave the hostel in search of more cans to crush. A handful of workers lucky enough to find a day job with a subcontractor, extracting platinum residue from rocks discarded by the nearby mines, will join him, as will those checking and setting new animal traps in the veld. The smell of mielie meal and the sounds of morning radio shows will start to stream from the rooms. Toothpaste will be squeezed frugally on to toothbrushes and worn-out brooms will begin sweeping.
But most of the men will remain buried beneath their blankets until late in the morning. Another day of waiting will begin.