Mbabane - Swaziland is experiencing a mining sector worker crisis that is comparable to South Africa’s labour unrest, relative to the small country’s equally small mining industry.
The traditional country’s mining problems have a unique African flavour.
Chiefs and their councils have been implicated in allegations of bribery by would-be mining sector workers, while a mine that supplies coal to South Africa counts the cost of Swazi employment practices over which the mine management has no control.
“We live just outside this mine, but we cannot work here. Instead they are taking strangers from chiefdoms far away,” said Thulani Msibi, a resident of Maloma, who claimed that he was not permitted to be employed at Maloma Colliery.
The colliery is in the southern section of the country in the Shiselweni Region. Xstrada South Africa is a 75 percent shareholder in the underground mine, which exports all its production to South Africa.
“Corrupt chiefs is the cause of the unrest. Our papers to get a job at the mine must be stamped by our chiefs. Many of us can’t afford to pay a chief and pay the chief’s runner and pay the inner council. Some of them want our first month’s salaries,” said Msibi.
Acting chief operations officer and mine manager for Maloma Colliery, Jacobus du Plessis, said that the mine management’s hands were tied because of the government’s requirement that all prospective workers must have their application forms stamped by their chiefs.
Chieftaincy disputes exist throughout the country’s 350 chiefdoms.
This is a challenge to ordinary Swazis who are not recognised by the government unless they can prove they are a subject of a chief, sometimes by way of a stamped document.
Allegations are widespread of bribery required to secure any service from a chief and his subordinates.
“We pay all these bribes and we don’t know for sure if we even have jobs. We are just applicants,” said Sam Dlamini.
Maloma Colliery recently advertised positions for 20 jobs, including drillers.
Around 600 Swazis applied.
Du Plessis said he witnessed violence committed against the colliery workers when disgruntled job applicants stoned staff buses. Staff transportation now requires police escorts, which has slowed production.
About R1 million was lost in the first five days of the strike, which began last week.
The mining sector in Swaziland is led by coal, which saw a 27 percent rise in output in 2012, the last full year for output data.
Query stone is also mined and previously discarded iron ore trailings are salvaged and shipped abroad from a defunct iron mine on Swaziland’s western border with South Africa.
Last month, Central Bank of Swaziland’s governor Majozi Sithole said mining sector profits were likely to rise this year due to improved economic conditions in South Africa, the purchaser of Swazi coal.
But the byzantine world of Swaziland’s chiefdom system may yet undercut the mining sector’s well-being.