A legion of migrant workers

2012-09-15 11:43

Most households in Lesotho survive on income earned from South African mines, but changing times spell difficulties ahead, writes Lucas Ledwaba

There are glaring differences between the houses perched on the mountain top in the old section of Baroeng village, and the new ones going up down below across a wide donga in the west.

The old ones are mainly stone-built, thatch huts surrounded by impressive stone-walled kraals.

They have been here for as long as most people in this Lesotho village, near the South African town of Fouriesburg, can remember.

But across the donga, there are new, modern-style brick houses going up, with the regular feature of satellite television dishes, a far cry from the old Baroeng village.

Most of these new houses, in an area which has running water and electricity, belong to a generation of young men who, like their fathers before them, earn a living on South Africa’s mines.

One of them, a two-room brick house, belonged to Khanare Monesa, one of the 34 miners killed by police at Marikana on August 16. Monesa was the fourth in his family, after his father and two uncles, to work on the mines.

This is not uncommon in Lesotho. At some point between 1986 and 1996 there were at least 105 115 Basotho men employed in South African mines.

The money still being sent home by such men supports families and extended families, and is used to invest in livestock, an important part of Basotho culture.

Before he died, Monesa had six cattle.

He used four the previous year as a bride price for Mmathabisile, his young, unemployed widow who is six-months pregnant.

Two were sacrificed for his funeral two weeks ago.

Like Monesa’s, the new houses are a sign of progress for Baroeng’s legion of migrant mine workers.

“This one, that one, that one over there, the one behind it . . . ja, and that one behind it, this one here. Ah, there are too many of them,” says Motlalepula Monesa, pointing out houses belonging to men who, as his late brother had to, spend most of their time in South Africa, working in mines.

The Lesotho government website admits as much. “The great majority of households gain their livelihoods from subsistence farming and migrant labour, with a large portion of the adult male workforce employed in South African mines,” it says.

Khanare Monesa left his family home up on the mountain to build a new one for himself and Mmathabisile. He died before
he completed it, but elsewhere in the village others are adding more rooms to theirs.

With very few job prospects in Lesotho, Motlalepula trod the well-worn path to the platinum mines in Rustenburg.

Although Lesotho has a small, but growing, textile industry, most men still prefer the mines because of the higher wages.

“I would also want to work there. There are no jobs here at home. There is just no money,” says Motlalepula, who makes a living as a builder in Tshwane.

For two years, he also searched for work on Rustenburg’s mines, with no luck – partly because of the mining sector’s shedding of jobs, but mostly because of the Immigration Act of 2003, which restricted the employment of foreign nationals.

Kikine Kikine, the regional manager for mining recruitment agency Teba in Lesotho and Free State, says the number of Lesotho nationals employed in South African mines has shrunk from 105 115 in 1996 to 34 655 today.

“Mines can only employ mine workers with skills from neighbouring countries. The mines approach Teba when they have new labour needs, and Teba can validate the identities and skills of these mine workers, and provide them with the documentation they need to get employment in South Africa,” he said.

He says Teba registers all skilled ex-miners and tells them when there are vacancies.

“The biggest problem is that in Lesotho there are no jobs,” says former mine worker Phuthehang Mohai (62), of Ha-Pita village near Maseru, who worked on various mines since 1972. When he retired as a winch operator in 2004, he still earned just R3 800 a month.

“I was about 20 or 21, I can’t remember clearly, when I was recruited to the mines. At the time they said South African people refused to work in the mines because it’s hard work down there.

“But us Basotho had no choice, so we went,” says Mohai, whose three brothers also worked in the mines. His nephew, Telang Vitalis Mohai, was another of the 34 killed at Marikana. He, too, was building a new house for his family.

But while finding work on the mines was a blessing, it has been a curse on the health of men like Mohai.

 “I was tired. My body couldn’t take it any more.

“I’m not in good health,” he says about why he retired. “I asked to go home but, because I was good in my job, the employers kept telling me to wait. But I was tired and, in the end, I just decided to leave.”

In Baroeng village, Molatudi Monesa (54) blames his poor health on half a lifetime spent underground.

When his elder brother died, he assumed the role of father to family members Motlalepula and Khanare. He went to South Africa from Butha-Buthe in Lesotho as a 19-year-old in 1977.

“I’ve worked everywhere . . . Welkom, Carletonville, everywhere. These hands,” he says, opening calloused palms, “built most of these shafts here in Rustenburg. I even worked on the chrome mines in Pietersburg (Polokwane).

“These mines, from Johannesburg to Rustenburg, were built by us Basotho.”

His voice rises in anger when he says: “When I left the mines I left with nothing.

“I got just a small payment from my provident fund which did not last. Now I have lost my son.”

Kikine says Teba’s other priority is to help mine workers with disabilities to renovate their homes to accommodate their needs.

Teba also helps facilitate their pension payouts, arranges for their medical checkups, and provides home-based care.

While ailing, retired men like Mohai look back on their days on the mines with regret, in Baroeng others look on in admiration at
the new houses their sweat has earned them.

Yet, despite the changing times, it is unlikely the search for better opportunities across the border will end soon.

Addressing a memorial service to honour the Marikana fallen in Maseru recently, Lesotho Prime Minister Thomas Thabane said his countrymen would continue the trek to SA as it has the biggest economy in the SADC region.

“Just like the USA, which attracts people from neighbouring countries because of its wealth and large economy, Basotho will continue to look for work in SA despite what happened,” said Thabane.

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