The women of Marikana speak…

(This article was published in Marie Claire magazine in South Africa in May 2013)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Overwhelming desperation fills the voice of middle-aged Laura Mokhutle-Flepu as she sweeps through her house in the troubled mining town Marikana.

“We are poor. Sometimes we have no food for our children. We all live in this one room,” laments Laura.

The room where she lives with her eight children is four-by-three meters. They do not have much furniture, apart from a bed and a few chairs. Laura and her family personify poverty in South Africa.

Their little house has a kitchen but no toilet or running water. “We go to the bushes when we want to use the toilet. We share the tap outside with 20 other families,” says Laura.

Stories just like hers though are scattered across Marikana – a small town surrounded by similar small mining towns – in the North West province. Informal settlements populated by migrant mineworkers and their families mark this landscape. As does the memory of that bloody battle that took place in August last year.

Laura is 46 years old and unemployed. She is a widow whose mineworker husband, Jikinteto Flepu, died of diabetes in 2009; and whose children are now also employed by the mine. Her family has spent the last 15 years in Marikana. When her husband died, Laura stayed on in one of the Lonmin platinum mine’s family housing units because by then her eldest daughter, Nancy Mokhutle, 31, the family’s sole breadwinner, had started working at the mine.

Nancy wasn’t working regularly late last year though when mineworker strikes for better salaries resulted in a bloodbath. On August 16, 2102, police opened fire on Lonmin miners gathered on a hill and an open field and 34 mineworkers were killed in what the media dubbed the ‘Marikana massacre’.

A commission of inquiry has since been set up and continues to run in Rustenburg, (located 25km from Marikana) as well as in the North West province in order to uncover the events of that day. Over the last few months, much has been written about the mining sector that has long been accused of exploiting migrant labourers. Before that fateful day, workers tell tales of how they had been begging, bargaining and fighting for better wages and living. Nothing had improved.

Tebogo Mauwane, a twenty-something mineworker at Anglo American Platinum mine in Rustenburg, was among thousands of workers who went on strike. They faced dismissal when they asked for a salary increase. They went on strike shortly after the Lonmin mineworkers in Marikana went on strike. Tension had spread across mining towns as workers grew increasingly frustrated with poor living conditions and what they felt was exploitation.

“I went on strike because my salary was too [low]. After deductions I earn R4,200 a month. I need to send money home to my mother who lives in Brits (in the North West province). She [does not work currently] and we don’t have a father,” says Tebogo. “Nobody else is working at home. I have two sisters and a brother. My brother is the youngest and he is in Grade 2. I also still have to pay R600 rent here and I must buy my food.”
Tebogo explains that her sisters are also young and unemployed. She says she is unable to support her mother and siblings as well as sustain herself on R4,200 a month.

Tebogo and other mineworkers at various mines demanded a basic take-home salary of R12,500 a month. She lives in a single room in a township and shares an outside toilet with other residents.

Tebogo says she works hard each month, that her work at the mine is labour intensive. “I get up at 3am and get to the mine at 5am. It takes me an hour to get to work in the morning. We then work eight hours underground… My work is heavy. I carry and fit pipes,” she says, referring to her working conditions. “Sometimes you don’t get water for two to three hours because they turn off the water underground. We are not allowed to eat underground. We can eat only in our break because we can’t take food underground. If they catch you eating, they can fire you.”

Tebogo adds that being a female mineworker is not easy and often unsafe. Sexual harassment and abuse is a risk. “A few months ago a woman was raped and killed when she went to work. And it’s so difficult to get a promotion at work. You must sleep with someone who can promote you. I refused [to] so I won’t get promoted,” alleges Tebogo. ”We sometimes [finish] work late. There aren’t many people around when we go home and we are on our own. You can [come across] thieves on the way. They are unemployed. They are likely to rape you if they find you alone. That is the most dangerous thing.”

Thumeka Magwangqana, mother of a female mineworker, says she fears for her daughter’s safety too. She lives with her 26-year-old daughter in a shack, in Wonderkop township, next to the Lonmin mine. “I am worried about my daughter’s safety. My daughter was punched by a man there at the mine. My daughter said she was cleaning the changing rooms (at the mine). The man wanted to use the room but didn’t ask her nicely. He was furious and punched her.
“They took her out with a stretcher. She woke up in hospital. The man was dismissed. But I didn’t like that he was dismissed because that man was there to work for his children. Work is scarce,” says Thumeka.

“Sometimes men are jealous when they see women working at the mine. They think women are taking their jobs.”

When mineworkers went on strike, Thumeka rallied with other mothers and wives of workers to form the Marikana Support Group. ”We started hearing about the strikes. One of the mineworker’s wives phoned me and asked me, ‘Thumeka what are we going to do? The mineworkers are dying.’ Then I gathered the women and we prayed for the mineworkers,” says Thumeka. “My daughter wanted to go on strike but I told her there were no women there. Only men went to the koppie (hill). The mineworkers did not [intend] to fight. They just wanted management to talk to them about their salaries.”

Thumeka recalls that the Marikana Support Group headed to the hill where mineworker’s were on strike on the day they were killed by police officers. “That day we made a chain of prayer at the mountain. Some of the mineworkers [had] already died. We went there and we saw dust. We saw ambulances and we couldn’t get closer to the mountain. We just had to stand there,” says Thumeka.

Following the massacre, The Marikana Support Group was soon assisted by other women’s groups from Johannesburg in their quest to help mineworkers who were still battling for salary increases with mine management, says Thumeka. “There was so much anger in Marikana. Women came to Marikana from Johannesburg and told us they were sad about what was happening in Marikana. We had solidarity,” says Thumeka.

“I was one of the convener’s of the women’s march on September 15 in Marikana. Before the march, we went to the police and asked them to help us. But we did not leave on good terms with them. They said we could not get permission to march. We said we [weren’t looking for] permission. We just wanted them to know so that they could check that everything [was handled correctly]. We then phoned our lawyers. They said that we could march. People from Johannesburg came here and we marched together in Marikana. My daughter was on strike [at the time] but she also wanted to go back to work because we were hungry. Sometimes we slept without food. It was very sad in this place. Nobody was working.

Mineworkers on strike were also hungry,” says Thumeka. “We took them food and water while they were still on strike on the koppie (hill). They were not allowed to come to their houses. They were afraid of the police. Some miners who came home were arrested. After the shooting a lot of men decided to sleep on the koppie until the [salary dispute was settled]. In the middle of September they came home.”

The strikes may have ended but wage negotiations between mineworkers and their bosses are ongoing. Mineworker’s unions have stepped in to work with workers to resolve their dispute with workers.

Marikana, like other small towns nearby, depends heavily on mining as its main source of income. The only other source of jobs and income is the retail sector and informal trading.

Nomfanelo Jali, recalls how she and her seven children had to wait for hours on August 16 to hear if her mineworker husband Apa November was still alive. “We were supporting their strike. Our men went on strike and they were toyi-toying. My husband did not have a phone with him. Nobody could use their phones because they didn’t want anyone to spy on them,” says Nomfanelo. “We heard on the radio that there was shooting on the mountain but we could not go there to see if the men were okay. My husband only came home at 8pm,” says Nomfanelo.

“Some of the mineworkers’ wives then went to the Marikana police station. We told the police to leave town because they were shooting at our husbands. We didn’t want them here.” Nomfanelo reflects on the small town where mining is the main source of income. “Life is difficult in Marikana. There is no money. Everybody is struggling.”

Marikana residents and families of killed mineworkers are looking to the Marikana Commission of Inquiry for compensation for their losses. Families of killed mineworkers are demanding compensation from the police.

“We want justice from the commission,” says Nomfanelo.

Thumeka says that the strikes for better salaries may have ended – and there have been some gains for workers – but Marikana’s residents, especially the younger ones, need assistance with job creation projects. She says life hasn’t changed much after the ‘Marikana massacre’. “I came here in December 1999 to look for a job. I was seeking greener pastures, but in vain. My child who works at a mine matriculated in Wonderkop in Marikana,” says Thumeka.

“We still run the Marikana Support Group but do other work now. Women come everyday to report what is happening in their neighbourhood. If a man is fighting with a woman, another woman would come to us know. And we would solve that problem,” says Thumeka. ”But we need work for women. When the men were striking, the women were crying that they have nothing to eat. They must not [rely on] their men. They must work.

“I’m a dressmaker but I don’t have the resources. I need a proper machine and materials that we can work with. If we have that, then we can teach the women how to do things. We can also do flower arranging. We can put them in baskets and sell them. We would also like to start our own bakery. But we need funding to start these projects. We have not yet started any of these. Still today, Marikana is in poverty.”


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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