Ray of hope for dumped miners as new owners move in

2011-09-17 17:36

There’s an almost visible mixture of mistrust, fear and hope hanging over the mine manager’s office at Aurora’s Orkney mine, Shaft 6.

Mthoko Ngidi, the representative of the mine’s new owners, China African Precious Metals, is introducing himself to shop stewards from the National Union of Mineworkers, led by chairperson Caiphus Zulu, and to the mine’s only Solidarity representative, Elias van Rooyen.

It’s easy to understand the workers’ mixed feelings. They’ve spent the past two years living on scraps since the mine’s previous owner, Pamodzi, went broke and Aurora Empowerment Systems moved in during 2009 with no money to honour its R600 million bid for Pamodzi’s assets.

Ngidi outlines China African Precious Metals’ strategy for the R550 million plan it has to rebuild the Orkney mine, which it bought for R150 million after Aurora was booted out earlier this year.

It’s basic but plausible: assess what is left to work with, get some cash flow going from the easiest shafts to repair, consolidate and then expand.

The first step is already under way. While Ngidi is addressing the shop stewards, consultants are assessing damage done to the mine’s infrastructure under Aurora’s stewardship.

This is meant to calculate what the cost of getting the shafts working again will be in terms of the agreement between China African Precious Metals and the Pamodzi liquidators.

Questions come slowly at first but gain momentum. Does China African Precious Metals have the cash? Will the recall agreement with the unions to get workers back in their jobs be honoured? Will the management company that was on site when the mines were looted be retained? Are the new owners going to get rid of the existing security company?

When will the electricity, cut by Anglo-American over debts last year, be reconnected? Who is going to repair the hostels?

Ngidi’s answers seem to hit the spot, particularly when he assures Zulu that China African Precious Metals has the cash in escrow. The firm’s local head, Elias Khumalo, is arriving the next day with a full mining plan to discuss the workers’ recall, some 5 000 of whom lost their jobs under Aurora.

After the meeting, Van Rooyen takes the City Press team to meet workers in the Gwede Village hostel, home to about 320 families.

Things are hard there. There is water but no electricity since it was cut off in April. The underground cables have all been dug up by residents desperate to put food on the table.

Families have built collective “kitchens” in the open areas and pool resources to cook meals for three or four homes at a time. The trees have been cut down for fire wood. Those who had some money saved have bought compressors and freezers.

Neighbours rent freezer space for when they can afford to buy meat. Charging a cellphone costs R5 a shot. Fitter and turner Van Rooyen, who’s the hostel’s only white resident, is hopeful about the new deal.

He says: “Now that we have spoken to the new owners and it seems like there will be a shake-up, I have some hope for the future.

“If these guys do come through, and they seem genuine, then we can survive.

“They’ll have to do a lot. The shafts have been robbed badly, but not as bad as at Grootvlei. People here have lost everything: wives, cars, houses.

“I lost my house and my car. All my savings are gone.

“My tools have been stolen and I lost all my documents and papers when the storm drain blocked and flooded the rooms. It will take a lot to sort this out.”

In the meantime, life continues to be a hand-to-mouth struggle.

“It’s hard. When we have food, we share it. If I get a packet of pasta, I share it with my neighbour,” says Van Rooyen.

“If she cooks pap and spinach, she sends her kid with a plate for me. I never thought I could eat with a black, but here I am. Life teaches you things.”

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