The war underground

2014-02-05 08:00

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For more than a century, the abundance of mineral resources has attracted mining companies from all over the world to Africa.

Today, the continent is littered with international mining houses, both giants and juniors, furiously ensuring they get their share before the gold, platinum, uranium and coal run out.

But behind all the glitter are entire communities where life has been irrevocably altered by the presence of these companies – and whose inhabitants mostly have little or nothing to show for the wealth surrounding them.

For three months last year, Victoria Schneider, Ilham Rawoot, Katrin Kraemer, Felix Karlsson and Antoinette Engel travelled through South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, Lesotho and Namibia to visit these communities and hear their stories.

The journey begins in small mining towns along the platinum belt in North West – Marikana, Photsaneng and Chaneng.

Here, communities are struggling to survive financially and socially.

Platinum was discovered in the region in the 1920s and the land was signed away to mining companies by the tribal authority of what was then Bophuthatswana.

Residents say the real change – for the worse – has come since the 1970s, and women have struggled the most.

Until the 1970s, women in Marikana cultivated the land and the men tended to livestock.

They say that when the mines began expanding, many families lost their homes or their farmland, or both.

In some cases, the soil was affected by chemicals from acid mine drainage and could not be cultivated.

Some women came to the platinum belt because they believed it would be a new Egoli, its streets paved with gold.

Instead, they are working as prostitutes to survive, selling their bodies to migrant labourers and out-of-town mine managers for R70.

Then there are the women who managed to get jobs with the actual mines and are now forced every day to deal with verbal and sexual abuse, harassment above and below ground and, in some cases, trade sexual favours for better shifts or more money.

‘Eish, hoBhoputatswana many girls were raped underground?”

Mary’s* asking the question purely rhetorically, shaking her head.

“In one shift of 70 people, there were five girls,” she says. “Last year once I was alone with 12 guys.”

With her bronze, manicured nails and perfectly styled cornrows, it is difficult to imagine Mary as a mine worker.

She simply doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone labouring a kilometre underground, covered in black dust.

But when she lays out her white overalls, black rubber boots and helmet on her bed, there can be no doubt that she lives another life outside her well-kept home.

She is seated at the table which takes up most of the space in her little house.

Behind her is a cabinet covered in doilies and purple plastic flowers.

Mary is passionate about the role – and struggles – of women on the mines of the North West.

The South African Mining Charter requires mining companies to have a 10% quota of women employees, both above and below ground.

Sue Vey, spokesperson for Lonmin, admits that the company has not met the 10% quota but is planning “to achieve this milestone”.

Vey says 5.2% of their female employees work underground, and the mine gives no consideration of the ratio of men to women allocated to a shift.

“Women are appointed to their roles when they meet the academic, functional and physical requirements of the role.”

“Tshaile [time to leave] is at 12pm,” says Mary. “But the lift only comes at 3.30pm, which means you sit in the waiting area for three hours. You sit and you sleep.”

She describes the waiting area as being similar to one “at a train station”.

“But you sit on the floor, there are no seats.”

It is during this time that women are at their most vulnerable.

There are only two toilets in her section, she says – one for men and one for women, shared between 70 workers.

“But it’s so far to walk and it’s dark, dark, dark. Even if you scream no one is going to hear you.”

She stands up and opens the curtain separating her bed from the table to show us her overalls and, pointing to the garment’s crotch and showing us how the one-piece uniform makes it very difficult to go to the toilet because the entire thing has to be taken off.

“It’s so easy to get raped then, because you can’t pull the overall back.”

Although the women on shift stick together and talk to each other, they are afraid of speaking out against abuse “as there’s a risk they will lose their jobs”.

Moving up the ranks is nearly impossible, she insists, without either a financial or sexual bribe.

“If you want something at work, you have to love the supervisor or ‘shift baas’ [shift boss] or the ‘kaptein’ [captain]. It’s hard to get a promotion, because guys take advantage, they just say ‘love me’.

“It’s difficult to report, because he’s gonna treat you bad at work, so it’s better to just keep quiet. It’s difficult unless you love someone. My supervisor asked me to love him. I reported it to the shift baas, and he asked me to leave the team.”

Vey says Lonmin has “human resources staff deployed across the business who are trained to assist employees with social and workplace issues”.

It also offers an anonymous tip-off line and is putting in place structures for a Women in Mining programme.

Doret Botha, a researcher at the African Institute for Disaster Studies at the University of the North West, has done extensive research on women working in the mining sector.

“Sexual harassment occurs in every kind of work setting, but some settings are more prone to sexual harassment than others. A strong predictor of sexual harassment is a work setting with a high male:female ratio, such as the mining industry,” Botha says.

“Women are afraid of losing their jobs,” she says, “And they don’t want to put their male co-workers in a ‘bad’ position. Also, they don’t find it easy to lodge complaints with male supervisors.”

Mary doesn’t want to work in the mine forever.

Her dream is to study nursing, but the company does not give her the necessary days off a week to study.

“I have to ask HR for time off, but they are difficult. They are all men and they don’t listen to women. And they definitely don’t listen to black women.”

The irony is that Mary is one of the few women in Marikana who actually has a job.

“I can’t depend on my boyfriend for everything ... And a boyfriend is a boyfriend. He can change. You can only trust youself.” * Not her real name

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