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Tales from a mine shaft

Ever since I was a child many people – young and old – from my village have worked in the mines, from uncles, cousins to friends. One thing remains common, despite their hard work digging precious metals, they have very little to show in monetary terms. They come home at end of the year with next to nothing. They can barely sustain themselves let alone take care of their families.

These men support families, often more than ten people (the miner, his parents, children, siblings even cousins). Literally these families survive on a shoestring, which is tied to the economic fortunes of the mineworker whose death in the mine could shatter the whole household. It’s not just surprising but disgusting that some find justification for the mowing down of more than 34 workers at the Lonmin mine.

Poverty reigns supreme in our communities. The net result is that families get broken. Husband and wife, mother and child become estranged from one another because of financial difficulties. Despite the fact that they work, parents can’t even afford to send their kids to school. As soon as their sons grow up, they work on the mines.

Contrast this with the lavish and comfortable lifestyles of the mine owners who continue to rake in trillions of rands. While many of us, the children and relatives of mineworkers, can barely afford an education, their kids study in top-notch schools where fees are so high they dwarf and far surpass even the fees of a university itself. They prance around wearing designer clothes and live in mansions. Many workers brave the cold and squeeze in accident-prone taxis while their children have never felt the coldness of walking into a taxi rank. So arrogant and proud are they of the wealth they amass that they fly around in private jets overlooking the very taxis and buses that transport many to their deaths.

When the producers of wealth demand an increase to the measly R4000 they earn, employers scoff and threaten them with retrenchment. They tell tales of how these companies would come crashing down if workers get what they dearly need: an increase. They flood us with false stories about how ridiculous the demands put up by workers are but they say nothing about how much they rake in from the sweat and blood of the very workers whose livelihood they care nothing about.

So deadly is working in the mines that one of my cousins who worked in the coal mines was laid off this year because he has TB. This is a young chap, surely he would not have contracted TB had he not been working in the mines but for lack of better jobs he found himself hanging by the noose of the mine bosses. Now at the age of 27 he sits at home unemployed for health reasons. Where else is he going to get a better job with TB?

We see men in our villages going to the mines healthy and coming back injured or having contracted diseases, particularly TB. Many sit at home frustrated with the fact that they have nothing to show for the many years they spent toiling under the noose of the mining industry. Those who are lucky enough to make it out of the mining industry alive and retire of old age barely stay more than 5 years in the village without meeting their maker.

How long will our society allow the mining industry to ruin the lives of poor South Africans? How long will our society allow the mining industry to rake millions out of the South African economy while leaving destitute the very people whose labour it exploited in the process? If the events at Lonmin are anything to go by, one day the South African working class will take matters into its own hands. And by that time it will no longer be armed with spears and knobkerries. It will long have realised that the power of the mine bosses is their relationship with the government and its gun-toting police.

I await that day eagerly and will not complain. I’ll be proud that at last the poorest of the poor have decided to stop the abuse of their labour power.