Down the mine there is pain, oppression and the cold fear of never coming back. But worst of all, said rock driller Mbuzi Mokwane, is the day he gets his pay cheque. “My pay day is the most miserable day for me. At least during the week I’m working. But on the day you’re given a pay slip that says 4,000 rand [£300], you start calculating your outgoings and you can go crazy. There is daylight robbery in the mines.”
Mokwane works at Blyvooruitzicht near Carletonville in western Gauteng (“place of gold” in Sesotho) province, a place where workers go underground every day fearing it could be their last; where they complain of low pay, bad food and overcrowded single sex hostels; where they say they are still treated like animals by their white bosses. Their simmering resentment could seemingly blow at any moment.
South Africa‘s mines are the frontline in an increasingly ferocious battle over greed, inequality and economic liberation. The sight of angry workers confronting police with sticks and clubs has become a defining one. Strikes are raging above the country’s vast reserves of platinum, gold and, this week, coal.
On Wednesday, AngloGold Ashanti admitted that most of its 35,000 workers had downed tools in an illegal strike. At the same time industrial action continued at Gold Fields and Anglo American Platinum, whose Rustenburg mines are reporting less than 20% attendance. Many are spurred by last month’s uprising at Marikana, when 46 people died before rock drillers won a wage rise.
Eighteen years after the end of racial apartheid, workers’ patience is all but exhausted. Julius Malema, the fireband politician, has told them: “They have been stealing this gold from you. Now it’s your turn.”
An industry that has divided rich and poor for nearly 150 years, scarred by exploitation and violence, is facing an existential crisis. These are the world’s deepest mines and there were 123 deaths last year; this week AngloGold Ashanti announced that a mud rush had killed a shaft timberman who had served the company for 33 years. The incidence of tuberculosis in the mines is up to six times higher than in the general population.
Rock drillers have been described as a skilled elite among miners. But Mokwane, 33, told of the hardships his job entails once the cage snaps shut at Blyvooruitzicht.
“To me this work is like some form of torture. You always think, ‘Am I going to come out alive, am I going to die?’ If the rocks fall on you, you will be seriously injured or killed. It’s very dangerous because in most cases we get to the working point and discover it’s not safe, but we are told to work. We are afraid because it’s not safe and anything could happen at any time.”
When the men are drilling, he continued, they are inside a crevice 1.5 metres high so cannot stand upright. They must get on their knees or squat. “The challenge is that once you start drilling you have to balance the machine. It is shaking and taking energy from you.”
“The other problem is smoke that comes out of the machine. You can’t put on a nosemask because it easily gets wet. So you just have to breathe the smoke. There also difficulties when it gets too hot, like you are losing breath. When you ask the bosses for permission to go outside for fresh air, they say no, so you can hardly breathe.”
Last November, he recalled, his worst fears were realised when a colleague working close to him was “totally buried by rocks”. He survived but is confined to a wheelchair. “To this day,” Mokwane said bitterly, “he has not been compensated for his injuries.”
Racial politics are not left above ground, according to Mokwane. “The white bosses don’t respect us; they only respect each other. Sometimes the conditions are not safe but they don’t listen. The bad thing is that even our own black bosses are treating us like the white bosses do.”
Like many men here, Mokwane sends more than half his salary to his impoverished family living far away, in his case the rural village of Mqanduli in Eastern Cape province. Mokwane’s wife, three children, mother and three siblings are all depending on him to pay for their food, shelter and school fees. He misses his loved ones “constantly” but can only go back at Christmas and Easter.
Home for the rest of the year is within the mining compound. A visitor to his shared hostel room is assailed by the thick air and smell of stale sweat, cracked floor tiles, filthy walls and power sockets, windows covered with old newspapers, uninviting communal kitchen, empty beer bottles stacked in the corner and battered lockers daubed with red spray paint that are meant to hold all a man’s possessions.
“There’s nothing that makes me happy staying in this room,” Mokwane reflected. “The way we live here is just like we’re animals.”
Others start smoking drugs and, if you start complaining, they say, ‘It’s not your home.’”
Food is supplied by the mine company but does not go down well. Mokwane said: “In the morning you’re given a cup of tea and a quarter loaf. Sometimes you find the bread is long expired and so hard you can’t eat it. Our lunch is also not good. In most cases they just give us food cooked the previous day. The rice is so overcooked it is like pap [maize porridge].
“If you try to complain, they say find your own alternative. Sometimes we try to take these complaints through the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), but there is no change.”
Last week he and his colleagues told the union they are demanding a monthly wage of 12,500 rand (£938), like their counterparts in Marikana. “If they don’t come back with it, we will put down our tools. My opinion is that all miners in the whole country should go on strike, then start negotiating. No one should go to work until our demands are met. What’s happening here shows that the bosses are very cruel. We were recently told the workers would share a 2m rand bonus; but I only got a black bag worth 20 rand (£1.50) in the shop.”
Mokwane’s room-mate, Vuyisa Maqundweni, 26, was lounging in a battered plastic chair, a cap pulled down tight on his head. He feels like a prisoner. “There’s nothing I can do in privacy but the situation is that I have no choice. I come back very tired and I need to rest, but others come in drunk and making noise so I cannot.”
Maqundweni says he sends 3,000 rand of his monthly 4,000 rand salary to his wife, small child, mother and other extended family members in Eastern Cape. He believes the yawning chasm between haves and have-nots can no longer go unchallenged.
“The most painful thing is knowing these companies make billions from what we do but they just give us 4,000 rand. This makes me very angry because I know the money is there and they won’t pay us. They should give us an increment before people start fighting and dying. If we don’t get an increase it’s likely people will do what happened in Marikana. They got a big increase but we still get 4,000 rand. How can people in Marikana get paid more than we do?”
There is widespread disaffection with the NUM, which is aligned to the governing African National Congress (ANC). Maqundweni said: “They are not helping us at all and we think most of them are crooks. They are the cause of us not getting an increase because they no longer respect our interests. The ANC and NUM are working together to make sure we don’t get what we want.”
Other miners expressed similar disgruntlement. All were migrant labourers driven from Eastern Cape or Lesotho by unemployment and poverty. They complained about meagre wages, hazardous working conditions, stale or overcooked food and hostel rooms often containing eight men in bunkbeds. They viewed Marikana as a watershed in the fraught contract between capitalist and worker and expressed a collapse of trust in the NUM and ANC.
Michael Molomo, 42, a driller whose right arm bears the scar of a rock fall, sometimes starts his shift at 3am and might not emerge until 3pm or 7pm. He says he is paid 4,000 rand and it is not enough to support his wife and eight children. “Every time I think of them, I miss them so much, but there’s nothing I can do.”
“The drilling is in a closed space that doesn’t allow you to breathe freely. You can’t stand up and you feel pains in your knees.”
Nomawule, from Lusikisiki in Eastern Cape, says he earns 5,300 rand (£397) per month. “People always say, ‘The money is not enough,’ but, if I look at the work I do and the money I get, it’s definitely not enough. It makes me very angry that the bosses are getting so much money and giving us so little. I’m not saying we should get equal pay to the mine bosses but we should get something reasonable.”
The wage makes it difficult to support his wife and 10 children, whom he can only visit twice a year. “Even as I speak now, I’m really missing my family but the situation is that I have to gather money to go home.”
Living in the compound offers little solace. “It’s a boring situation.
Of course there is electricity and we appreciate that, but the fact you have one bed on top of another is not good. It’s still like apartheid where people are not treated as human beings. My wife cannot even come here to stay the night.”
He added: “My collegues and I have a miserable life. I think the only solution to our problem of better wages is a national strike throughout the country. If all miners can put down their tools, I think people would listen and realise we’re serious.”
The Guardian contacted Village Main Reef, owner of Mokwane’s Blyvooruitzicht mine, with a list of the miners’ concerns. Cheryl Walton, a spokesperson for the company, responded: “I believe that some of these allegations have been raised by employees through the collective bargaining structures and are being addressed by mine management.”
She said: “The allegations which haven’t been raised before can unfortunately not be addressed through the media. Since Village took over the mine on 1 June 2012, we have engaged openly with all stakeholders of Blyvoor about legacy issues and challenges facing the company and threatening its future.”
In The Road to Wigan Pier 75 years ago, George Orwell observed: “More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins.”
Today, South Africa, rated the most unequal society in the world, stands accused of the same wilful ignorance towards the “poor drudges underground” who make lives of privilege possible. Charles Abrahams, a lawyer representing 3,000 former miners suffering lung diseases, said: “The same divide exists. The middle class have got absolutely no idea of what the ordinary life of a miner is on any single day.”