Johannesburg - The strike in the platinum belt entered its 17th week on Friday and entrenched itself as the longest wage strike, and possibly the most devastating from a humanitarian point of view, in South Africa’s history.
Thousands of families have been forced to survive on food handouts and other charity giveaways, as there seems to be no end in sight to the dispute involving three of the largest platinum producers.
President Jacob Zuma’s new administration – the cabinet he is set to announce today – will have to deal with the strike as its first priority, especially after three days of mediation talks facilitated by the Labour Court this past week saw no meaningful progress.
The protracted strike, involving some 70 000 miners, has created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis as cash-strapped employees now have little or no means to support families in the platinum belt of Rustenburg, and those of their extended kin in the rural home villages of the Eastern Cape.
Nozinzile Maqanda of Dutywa, a small town in the Eastern Cape, said she was unable to sleep at night as the strike dragged on. She relies solely on her husband’s state pension of about R1 350 since her only son Vuyo has stopped sending money home because he is on strike and has not been paid.
“We don’t have money any more ever since the strike, because Vuyo used to provide for us,” she said.
“We watch the strike on TV every day. The strike is painful for us, it brings back memories of mid-August 2012 when my son was shot and injured, it is painful,” she said, referring to a deadly confrontation in which more than 30 striking miners were shot dead by police.
Vuyo was one of the organisers of the unprotected strike at Lonmin in mid-August 2012. He has a permanent limp after being shot during clashes with the police.
NGOs, including the Gift of the Givers, gave food parcels to hungry striking employees and their families earlier this week, but the supplies proved not to be enough, prompting others to start efforts to help.
There are even plans to send doctors to Marikana to attend to the destitute families of the striking miners.
A concert will be held in Johannesburg today to raise funds for the striking miners.
A group calling itself the Gauteng Strike Support Committee said: “What is unfolding in the platinum belt is the buckling end of an industry based on cheap black labour.”
“The mine owners are following a familiar pattern to dehumanise the strikers,” the group said in a statement, adding that “the amount of R12 500 is not an arbitrary or outrageous demand dreamt up by union adventurists and dismissed by economists. It now carries the symbolic weight of the last will and testimonies (sic) of too many fallen.”
The strike support group said it was collecting and delivering relief to 17 shafts affected by the strike. Collection points have been set up at Wits University and the University of Johannesburg and a relief account for donations has been created.
Four trucks left Johannesburg loaded with food and clothing on Monday morning in an effort involving relief organisation Gift of the Givers and churches.
Trade union Solidarity on Friday criticised the government and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) for “barely doing anything to alleviate the humanitarian crisis caused by the strike”.
Solidarity said its relief efforts targeting its members affected by the strike were becoming strained as destitute Amcu families were now also seeking help.
Solidarity was facilitating emotional and debt counselling, it said in a statement.
“Yesterday (Thursday), dozens of Amcu members descended on a feeding project of Solidarity, causing major turmoil. Helping Hand cannot take responsibility for Amcu members and the whole community. Amcu and the state must take responsibility for the situation,” Dirk Hermann, Solidarity’s executive officer, said.
Amcu launched a R1 million strike fund last month to meet the basic needs of its members.
But the strike funds could only provide R12.50 for each striking Amcu member or a loaf of bread over the four-month strike, Hermann said.
Tension and violence has also marred the strike. Four people were killed earlier this month, while on Thursday an employee from Anglo American Platinum’s (Amplats) Union Mine in Limpopo was killed on his way to work.
Previously, the country’s biggest strike was led by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) over wages in 1987. It involved 360 000 members over three weeks.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the NUM’s secretary-general at the time, organised the strike in which 11 people were killed, 500 were injured and over 400 workers were arrested, according to the union.
Recently, the NUM led an 11-week strike at Northam Platinum’s Zondereinde Mine involving about 7 000 members, which ended in January.
The pay dispute had been exarcerbated by recent comments by Chris Griffith, the chief executive of Amplats, defending his R17.6 million annual pay package.
He was forced to apologise last week.
By contrast, underground employees earn an average of between R4 500 and R5 500.
Griffith was paid more than double his counterpart Terence Goodlace, the chief executive at Impala Platinum who earned R7.5m, and more than Ben Magara, the chief executive at Lonmin, who earned R12.9m.
Amcu is demanding a monthly basic wage of R12 500 for its members.