Guest Column

Not worth a ton of chrome

2017-07-30 05:52
In full voice, mourners march towards the Ga-Mampa cemetery to bury one of their own, Tinus Manthata, who was shot and killed while fleeing from security guards and police officers who broke up a peaceful gathering by residents who were complaining about the dangers brought to their village by mining. Picture: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media

In full voice, mourners march towards the Ga-Mampa cemetery to bury one of their own, Tinus Manthata, who was shot and killed while fleeing from security guards and police officers who broke up a peaceful gathering by residents who were complaining about the dangers brought to their village by mining. Picture: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media

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Lucas Ledwaba

Mining companies care more about the minerals they extract from the land than the lives of the villagers living there.

When the coffin carrying Tinus Manthata’s body was lowered into the grave, mourners broke into a melancholic rendition of Senzeni na? Their voices resonating through Ga-Mampa, a rural village in Limpopo’s Sekhukhune District Municipality, spoke of the deep sorrow and anger left by the unnecessary death of this young man.

It was a scene reminiscent of the days when Africans in the townships and villages often gathered around graves to send off victims of bullets of state security forces.

Even the circumstances around Manthata’s killing, allegedly from a police officer’s bullet that pierced through his back and sent him rolling in the dust of his land of birth, smack of the callous cruelty from the bad old days.

Manthata was 32 years old. Like many youths in his village, he was unemployed, angry and frustrated. He was also deeply concerned about the deteriorating state of the environment caused by mining in his home village situated some 50km from Burgersfort.

On a chilly Wednesday morning a fortnight ago, he joined scores of other residents from the Ga-Phasha and Ga-Mampa communities to gather near the Sefateng Chrome Mine.

The villages fall under the largely rural, underdeveloped Sekhukhune District Municipality with a population of 1 076 840 according to the 2011 Statistics SA census. The area is home to a thriving chrome and platinum mining industry.

Frustrated

Although the mining boom, which gained momentum in the early 2000s, was expected to turn the fortunes of the citizens of this area, which was once among the poorest in the country, around, it has brought with it myriad challenges which are brewing deep-seated anger and resentment against mining and those associated with it.

Residents are frustrated at the violation of environmental regulations, which is leading to pollution of water sources, which in turn leads to death of livestock, loss of grazing and ploughing land, and destruction of houses through blasting activity.

Although mining companies often dangle the carrot of job creation when applying for mining permits in communities such as Ga-Mampa, such promises have so far turned out to be pie in the sky.

Unemployment, especially among the youth, remains high. Frustrated with seeing the mineral wealth in their own backyard being mined and transported to far-away lands while they remain poor, many have now taken to mining without permits.

Their frustration is fuelled further by the arrogant indifference of mining houses that show scant regard for the communities made up largely of unemployed youth and the elderly.

Although Deputy Minister of Mineral Resources Godfrey Oliphant recently told a meeting of informal miners that he would force mining companies in Limpopo to disclose progress on implementation of their social labour plans, his department has remained an indifferent spectator that only sighs in the face of mounting anger in communities affected by mining.

Fed up and frustrated with this lack of action, Manthata joined his fellow residents to engage peacefully with the management of Sefateng Chrome. According to eye witnesses, none of the residents was armed. Their gathering was meant to be peaceful. There was not to be blockading of roads or burning of barricades, as has happened during public protests in recent times.

In spite of this, armed security guards and police officers arrived on the scene and, without warning or trying to engage with the gathered villagers, among them pensioners and women, simply opened fire with rubber bullets.

As the frightened villagers fled into the bushes away from the mine premises, a policeman was seen firing with his pistol towards the crowd. Manthata fell and never rose again, another of South Africa’s black children’s lives destroyed by the mining curse, another death resulting from the toxic collusion between state and capital, just like in Marikana five years ago.

A young man is dead. His poor elderly mother, Lekgale Manthata, who survives on a state old-age grant, struggled to raise money to bury him. She had hoped he would find work and help support her in her old age. He had wanted to start a family but, with no income, he would never have been able to take care of them. His circumstances represent the lot of many of the area’s youth.

An uncertain future

The anger in the communities is rising and may reach boiling point if the department of mineral resources doesn’t rein in mining companies for failing to implement their social labour plans and adhere strictly to environmental regulations.

These companies have spared no effort to exploit the mineral wealth in Sekhukhune. Whole villages have been relocated to soulless township developments in exchange for as little as R20 000. The dead have been exhumed, friendships transcending generations have been broken, and water sources and grazing land polluted.

Those who remain close to the mines are subjected to a torturous life characterised by all forms of pollution, uncertainty and harassment. Those relocated to townships face an uncertain future with no work and no land to live off.

The governing party’s Freedom Charter declaration that the country’s mineral wealth shall be restored to the people remains just that – a declaration on a piece of paper with no real practical meaning to the people on the ground.

A young man has died. His fellow residents ask in the song at his grave: What have we done that we get shot and killed like this? Just like in the dark old days, they ask if perhaps they are being dealt this blow simply because of their blackness.

Even as they sang while the priest delivered the last rites at Manthata’s grave, the roar and crackling of heavy machinery from the Sefateng Chrome Mine about 1.5km away could be heard in the distance. Not even the tragic death of a young man could bring production to a halt for just a few hours.

Perhaps in the eyes of the mine bosses, he was just a poor, rural black youth, another cheap life not worth a ton of chrome. Senzeni na?

Ledwaba is a freelance journalist and the author of Broke & Broken – The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa

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