Mineworkers say more than 1 100 of them face eviction in the mining township of Borwa in Westonaria, two months after being retrenched by the world’s second-largest gold mine, Gold Fields’ South Deep.
The December retrenchments followed a protracted strike in protest against pending layoffs, which were intended to cut costs, and workers now fear losing their homes after the mine served an eviction order on its former employees.
Workers were given 24 hours to vacate the homes Gold Fields built for miners in 2016 under rent-to-buy agreements to fulfil the mine’s social responsibility commitments to the mining community. Westonaria is 45km west of Johannesburg.
Pitso Ramakgalema, 42, is a representative of the Borwa Concerned Community group and a former worker at South Deep. He said the eviction order served on 13 March instructed occupants to vacate the two- and three-bedroom houses by 15 March 2019.
The group of more than 50 retrenched miners told New Frame that most of them do not have copies of their lease contracts and accused the mine of reneging on its promises. The mine assured workers they would not face eviction if they were retrenched or injured at work, the miners said.
Ramakgalema accused the mine of finalising retrenchment packages without consulting workers, and National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) officials of “selling out” workers to protect mining shares and the interests of the conglomerate.
NUM represents about 80% of the mine’s 3 614 workers and 2 214 contractors. The union downed tools on 2 November last year in protest against the retrenchment of 1 500 employees, including 420 contractors.
“Workers were given exit packages without being consulted,” said Ramakgalema. One of the miners being laid off is Tenele Shongwe, 32, who is seven months pregnant.
South Deep represents a R32 billion investment in South Africa by Gold Fields.
According to Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Employment Survey for the third quarter of 2018, there was a decrease of 16 000 jobs compared with the previous quarter. Of these, 2 000 were in the mining industry.
Although NUM regional chair Ndlela Radebe has criticised the mine for cutting costs at the expense of poor workers, he also condemned South Deep suspended branch chair Kanetso Matabane for continuing with the strike despite NUM’s national leadership telling him to end it.
During an interview with New Frame, Radebe said he nearly lost his life in December when he was stabbed three times – in the neck, chest and arm – after a meeting with mineworkers turned volatile. “I was stabbed almost to death in the hall.”
The meeting was called by the 3 500 mineworkers not affected by the layoffs. “Unaffected mineworkers wanted to go back to work, the strike was already in its fifth week.”
While Radebe rubbished claims that he had personal interests in the mining conglomerate, he said some of the shop stewards accused of assaulting him were not interested in saving the 3 500 jobs.
Radebe said that incident led to the suspension of the shop stewards and the branch chair for defying the organisation. An interim committee was then established.
“The NUM is worried about the continuing trend of mining companies retrenching mineworkers in South Africa. This is a bloodbath of job losses in the mining industry. Mineworkers have become the sacrificial lamb in the name of profit,” Radebe said.
There were several violent spats during the 3 000 worker-strong strike, leading to the hospitalisation of some workers after mine security officers shot them with rubber bullets.
Shongwe and her husband, Vikens Mkhondo, have three children and were both laid off in December. Like Ramakgalema, Shongwe also takes care of extended family members in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga.
Some of the houses the mine built are in other areas of Westonaria, such as Protea, Hillshaven, Glen Harvey and Zinnia Park.
With the evictions looming, miners with children being schooled in the townships and on the outskirts of the area say the mine has failed to provide alternative accommodation.
The closest schools are the Westonaria primary and high schools, which are about 8km from these areas, while other learners travel as far as 25km to other schools.
“We have children who go to schools around here,” said Ramakgalema repeatedly.
The community group representative, who fends for his family of four, provided details on the houses the workers occupy under rent-to-buy agreements.
The two-bedroom houses sold for R354 000, while three-bedroom houses were on the market for R454 000. Rent for the former is R2 200 a month and workers pay rent of R2 600 a month for the latter.
“We are still traumatised by the retrenchments and now we are facing evictions. Our children are mostly affected by this painful experience,” he added. “If I leave Borwa, where am I going to go?”
No election campaigns
While the residents hope Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe will intervene, they have also vowed to protest against the 8 May national elections. They say they will not allow any political party to campaign in the area until their issues have been addressed.
Mantashe was expected to meet mineworkers on 10 December, but the meeting never took place.
Paseka Ndevu, one of the representatives of the retrenched mineworkers in Borwa, explained how the mine pledged R20 million to build houses for its employees in adherence with Mining Charter guidelines. These state that mining licences cannot be renewed if the mine has not penned its social responsibility mandate.
According to Ndevu, the Rand West City Local Municipality pledged the land on which the houses could be built.
While residents stand in solidarity and seek an interdict against the eviction order, Ndevu says going to the polls is futile.
“We refused to allow the ruling party and other parties to campaign in Borwa until our demands are met. Two weeks ago, the community barred Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor from campaigning in the area,” he said defiantly.
During the strike in December, New Frame interviewed mother-of-three Mbali Khoza, who was terrified of losing her home and desperate for a lifeline just weeks before Christmas.
The 31-year-old was one of the mineworkers camped outside the mining conglomerate buildings in Westonaria in protest against the retrenchments.
Khoza, an electrician on the mine for eight years, depicted a grim future for mineworkers battered by a declining industry threatened by “cheap labour” and advanced technology.
“What am I going to do, where are we going to live?” Khoza asked, stifling sobs. “How am I going to take care of my family, what am I going to do? They are throwing us in the streets.”
Khoza’s colleague, Mandla Mamba, 47, suffered the same fate. The father of five was laid off in November after working on the mine for 23 years.
“It is painful when a company that you have served for more than 23 years can just dump you. They just don’t care,” Mamba said.
Rand West City Local Municipality spokesperson Tshidiso Tlharipe told New Frame that property developer Crimson King owns the land on which the homes were built for mineworkers.
The municipality supported the initiative at the request of the mine and with the support of trade unions.
Tlharipe said the developer still owns the houses. “The Crimson King developers bought the land a long time ago and they built the houses.”
The municipality said it sympathises with the retrenched workers and has tasked the mine with reskilling these workers and relocating them to understaffed units.
Houses linked to employment
Gold Fields corporate affairs deputy president Sven Lunsche said that the housing provided to the retrenched employees was linked to their employment at South Deep.
“As you are aware, the mine, unfortunately, had to retrench approximately 1 080 employees in late 2018 due to operational reasons. A number of these retrenched employees occupied accommodation that was either owned or administered by South Deep.”
Lunsche said the lease agreement the mine has with the employees states that the following occurs when employees are retrenched: “The tenant, on leaving the service of the company for any cause whatsoever, shall give up possession of the accommodation.” He further explained that around 70 workers face eviction from Gold Fields houses in Borwa rather than 1 100 as indicated by the retrenched mineworkers. He said the majority did not stay in homes provided by Gold Fields.
According to the mine, the retrenched employees were given three months’ notice on 1 December 2018. Lunsche said it is a standard arrangement to allow retrenched employees a three-month grace period to find alternative accommodation. “The notice to apply for an eviction order was handed to them at the beginning of March, when the notice period expired.”
According to Lunsche, the mine did not have rent-to-buy agreements with its employees and said the mine has not provided alternative accommodation for the families should the evictions go ahead.
“We are engaging with the local municipality to look at this issue.”
With just a month to go to the national polls, retrenched mineworkers have vowed to fight for their homes, even if it means boycotting elections they claim have done nothing to improve their lives.
Update, 11 April 2019: This article was updated to reflect eviction numbers provided by Gold Fields regarding retrenched mineworkers in Borwa.