More misery in Marikana

Women's unpaid labour, corporate profiteering and state neglect

The massacre of 34 striking mining workers by police at the Lonmin platinum mine in South Africa brought to world attention the terrible conditions of their life and work. The burden of the inhuman living conditions falls principally on women who have to put in additional, unpaid toil beyond their productive labour (which may be paid or informal) to make up for the major deficiencies.

Samantha Hargreaves

IMMEDIATELY adjacent to the site of the 16 August 2012 police massacre of 34 striking Lonmin mineworkers at Marikana two hours northwest of Johannesburg, thousands of residents in the Wonderkop shack settlement live in desperate and dehumanising conditions. The cheap labour of the men and the unpaid labour of the women which reproduces the predominantly male labour force together guarantee super profits to Lonmin.

This system should have ended in 1994, but in many respects it has been amplified over the past 19 years. After apartheid, mineworkers and their family members may have legitimately hoped for a legislative framework that would rein in the corporations and ensure benefit for local communities and workers from mining extraction. Indeed they would have expected, for the first time in their lives, a public service that fulfils its role in meeting constitutional and legal obligations to shelter citizens and meet their need for basic services.

The Marikana story is about much more than a strike for higher wages, it is also a story about a crisis in social reproduction. State neglect and corporate greed have fomented household crises stretching from the mines back to the sources of migrant labour in far-flung regions and neighbouring countries. Narrow male-dominated trade union and worker interests mean that hope for a radical resolution lies in the struggles of women in places like Wonderkop. The challenge is linking these with (mainly male) worker struggles and environmentalist solidarity to challenge the extractivist model of development, the social, economic and environmental costs of which are principally borne by working-class and peasant women.

Neglected state services translate into great hardship for women

The settlement layout in Wonderkop is informal. Deeply pockmarked dirt roads run into narrow alleys, which become impassable in the rainy season.The majority of residents live in shacks built of tin and wood, while those that are slightly more confident of their tenure have invested in small mud brick huts or even formal brick housing here and there. The informality of shelter is a source of great stress and additional work for women, according to one Wonderkop woman: 'With shacks and no roads, it's mud outside and mud inside.' Says another, 'I hide my kids under the bed whenever it is windy in case my shack falls on them and me.'

Residents have built their own hand-dug pit toilets, but many just defecate in the open veld or local streets, and sewerage puddles in street gulleys. For those with the finances to spare, a borehole can be drilled for a fee of just over $80; for the rest, water can only be accessed by standing in long early-morning queues 'as the water in the shared taps is finished by midday', says another woman.

The nearest hospitals are more than 20km away, and with poor emergency response services, they are only accessible by hiring private transport costing upwards of $50 for a single trip. Residents rely on the Lonmin private clinic, which one woman complains is crowded, with limited facilities and inadequate infrastructure: 'equipment like the scale is not even working'.

Schools are overcrowded, and distant, with parents having to pay high transport costs. The schools charge fees beyond what national law stipulates, making education unaffordable to many. There is no formal electricity provision in the settlement, resulting in dangerous 'illegal' connections. Reports another woman, 'When it rains, children get shocked.' In the absence of safe energy, she says, residents rely on hazardous alternatives: candles which are 'so dangerous and people die' and paraffin stoves which 'burn people often' when they overturn.

The burdens that arise from poor living conditions fall principally on women and  older children who, on an unpaid basis, take care of the household by provisioning safe water, caring for the sick, sourcing and preparing food and so on. For many women, this represents hours of work beyond their productive work which may be paid or informal. 

Mining corporations perpetuate deep inequality and injustice

Life is impossibly difficult for the residents of Wonderkop, as it is for the one in every four South African households estimated to live in informal settlements. What sets Wonderkop and other similar mining settlements apart is that the residents here live in the shadow of and service the mine infrastructure and shafts that dig up an extremely rare and coveted metal, platinum.

Lonmin, in whose shafts the majority of Wonderkop mineworkers labour, is the world's third largest platinum producer, mining on the world's largest reserves (78%) of platinum and its associated group minerals.

Lonmin's fortunes fell in 2012 due initially to a depressed market in platinum group metal prices, followed by the August-September strikes, which significantly cut production levels. But after recovering, Lonmin enjoyed tremendous profits in the last quarter of 2012, as well as earlier, in two separate waves when the price of platinum soared. In 2011 alone, Lonmin's earnings climbed 64% to $226 million, or 112 cents a share, beating the 84-cent median estimate of 18 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

In contrast with these significant earnings at company level, in 2012, a rock driller earned on average $1,130 in a total-cost-to-company monthly package, an amount lowered by numerous deductions that result in a take-home salary of anywhere between $325-$645 a month. Lonmin's CEO earned $129,192 a month in 2012. The combined salary package of the three top executives at Lonmin was more than the 3,600 rock drill operators who went on strike for a minimum monthly wage of $1,346. 

In spite of significant profits accruing to the mine over more than a decade, generously distributed to shareholders and leading executives, the workers live in what can only be described as deep misery and squalor. To the workers and their families, the mine offers minimal social services, in the form of a clinic (and a hospital for the workers) at Wonderkop, and some water distribution points.

Corporate social responsibility projects have included some investments in education and nutrition, and a failed hydroponics project. Lonmin boasts of an investment of R39 million in community projects in 2012, with enthusiastic backing from the World Bank dating to 2007, but the benefits are small compared to overall profits and the oversized salaries of executives.

In the words of a mineworker: 'People live in very unreasonable conditions. It makes me feel terrible when I look at the mining company and how big it is. It is a world-class group that makes so much money, but look at our community. Look at how we must live.'

Prior to the August 2012 massacre, workers could either live in old-style overcrowded hostels with eight men on average to a room and 40 to a block, sharing a run-down ablution room, or alternatively accept a 'living out' allowance of $200 per month. In 2012, only 3,000 of Lonmin's 28,000 workers lived in the hostels, with the majority choosing the allowance.

State and corporates escape duty to shelter and service workers and their families

The post-apartheid Mining Charter (2002) and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act provided the mining houses an escape clause in the form of these living-out allowances. They absolve the mines of responsibility to provide the needed housing and infrastructure for workers. 

The allowances were introduced as part of a strategy to gradually eliminate hostels and phase out the migrant labour system by assisting the families of mineworkers to live with them. However, levels of housing delivery have not come close to actual need - Lonmin claims to have built 1,149 houses and converted 60 hostel blocks into single and family units - nowhere near sufficient to shelter a workforce of 28,000 and its dependents. The living-out allowance effectively devolves responsibility for the delivery of housing and services to individual workers. But these needs cannot be met by individuals given the high cost of housing and credit. A genuine housing strategy can be undertaken only by responsible institutions with the necessary capital and capacity: the mining company, working in partnership with the local municipality, with adequate state subsidies.

The current situation stands in stark contrast to the apartheid past when mining companies developed whole mining towns. White workers resided in pleasant mining villages with quality family housing, although black workers lived in squalid hostel accommodation. There are contemporary examples in Zimbabwe of what can be done when the law obligates and the state regulates mining companies to ensure that workers live in reasonable conditions.

The Benchmarks Foundation, a church-based South African NGO specialising in corporate social responsibility in the extractive industries, points to the Mimosa and Ngezi mines in Zimbabwe as leading examples. According to the Foundation, these mines enjoy full literacy levels and workers live in formal housing with decent standards of services. On the Mimosa mine, every mineworker - male or female - has their own house, ample enough to accommodate their families. In South Africa, which lacks state legislation requiring minimum standards of infrastructure and service investment, the same company - Impala Platinum - does not come close to these same standards, even though Zimbabwe is a far poorer country.

Local government is obliged in terms of the constitution and relevant municipal law and policy to meet the housing and service needs of populations within its jurisdiction. The Rustenburg municipality, under which the Marikana town and the Wonderkop settlement fall, has been riven with corruption for many years.

After many audits that revealed systematic corruption, the municipality finally succeeded in balancing its books, but at the expense of service delivery. Citizens living in Marikana without basic services become increasingly angry, especially as they reside in the country's second-fastest-growing area in 2010, having a gross domestic product growth rate of 3.9%, compared with the national average of 2.8%.

In Wonderkop and other similar mining frontier informal residential settlements, the absolute failure of state and corporation to house workers and provide a minimum standard of social services is palpable. The state absolves mining corporations of responsibility.

The unbroken 150-year history of mining corporations accumulating massive profits off the back of black labour continues, thanks to the combination of men's cheap paid labour and women's unpaid labour. The migrant labour system was constructed upon profit maximisation by mining capital, premised on preventing family migration and locating responsibility for the social reproduction of the workforce and the next generation of workers in the rural areas.

Peasant women would continue to grow subsistence food crops, raise children, and take care of sick mineworkers when they returned to the labour-sending areas in South Africa or the region. Women's unpaid labour would take the place of the health and other care services required by mineworkers when they became ill from the many diseases that characterise long years of service on the mines.  Through this system, the state too was released from its obligations to render public services in both the labour-sending and receiving areas. Women's unpaid labour has, therefore, been central to the accumulation strategy of mining corporations across sectors for well over a century.

Union and worker struggles fail to address living conditions

In October 2012, the Lonmin workers won a 22% increase in their salaries, which represented a significant victory after one of the deadliest strikes in South Africa's history. Yet, both the new trade union that most actively supported the strike, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), and the emergent worker formations (called strike, and now worker, committees) focused exclusively on the demand for a higher minimum wage.

Despite the miserable living conditions that workers and their families endure, and the patent failures of local government and Lonmin, demands related to labour reproduction did not feature in the month-long strike. Neither did the deep indebtedness of the mineworkers, driven by a largely unregulated and profit-driven financial services sector.  

This focus on wages, to the exclusion of other critical social and economic challenges, reflects a narrow economistic or workerist position, deeply masculine. The majority of Lonmin workers are men, with women representing less than 6% of the total workforce. Women mineworkers complain that the organised unions fail to respond to their concerns as women workers, which include violence and sexual harassment, maternity leave and the absence of dedicated ablution facilities.

If women's voices demanding housing and social services were listened to, the traditional trade unions and even new democratic worker-controlled formations would have to extend their focus to address the crisis of reproduction. The demands on corporations and the state to fulfil their obligations would allow a much broader and richer debate about social policy.

This more extensive approach may yet emerge. Wonderkop women stood firmly alongside their men - husbands, sons, brothers and lovers - through the long strike, and they mobilised to condemn the police and demand state accountability following the bloody massacre. But they have also mobilised as women and spoken out about the hardships of life in the settlement, including in a women's-only march of nearly 1,000 to the local police station.

They have worked in alliance with others to argue for a community works programme that will address the need for more formal roads and employment for women in an environment in which male labour predominates. Women's concerns about the terrible burden of social reproduction are expressed through their struggles, even if at this time they are somewhat disconnected from those of the male workers.

The best prospects for a sustained radical challenge to an extractivist, profit-oriented and migrancy-dependent maldevelopment model now destroying the very basis for life and its reproduction, lie in unifying these struggles and foregrounding women's perspectives and solutions.               

Samantha Hargreaves coordinates the women, gender and extractives programme of the International Alliance on Natural Resources in Africa (IANRA). She is also associated with the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, and is a leading member of Marikana Women Unite!, a solidarity initiative of women from organisations and movements in different parts of South Africa. The above article was written in her personal capacity.

*Third World Resurgence No. 271/272, Mar/Apr 2013, pp 35-37