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The Marikana Catholic Church is the most substantial and settled building in the village – apart from the mineshafts and the smelters on the outskirts of the village – and also looks as though it is there to stay.
Everything else has the look of the 21st century equivalent of a tented mining town, where everyone is planning to move on as soon as they make enough money.
Of course there are no tents; there is instead the modern-day equivalent – low-cost red brick block buildings that look as though they could be quickly deconstructed and re-assembled at the next pristine rural spot where some enormously valuable mineral is discovered.
With much of the agricultural land having been bought out by the mining companies, almost everything in Marikana is there to serve those who serve the mining companies. All the retailers you would expect are there – Lewis, Pep, Ellerine, Shoprite’s Usave, Chappies and Liquor City. And of course African Bank and Capitec are prominent, as well as the localised microlenders offering “cash finance, cash loans, cash immediately available, no waiting period”.
The temporary nature of it all is at odds with the fact that platinum companies have been in the area for more than 50 years committed to extracting ever more value out of the land before it all ends. But although they have been in the area for decades, the firms seem desperately keen to avoid anyone thinking they are there on anything but a temporary basis or that they have some commitment to the region.
Commitment might bring demands for investment in the sort of social infrastructure that is needed to dig millions of tons of precious ore from deep underground.
Their commitment does of course extend to the hundreds of millions of rands needed for smelters and for shafts that go ever deeper but not for anything but the most basic form of social infrastructure. Air, water and housing are all of a near life-threatening quality because of this lack of investment.
On a not-so-trivial level is the lack even of sports facilities. Despite there being tens of thousands of people living in Marikana and the nearby squatter camps, there is only one grass soccer pitch. “Welcome to the Wonderkop Stadium” reads the sign over the gates, which are kept locked unless permission is granted by Lonmin.
The mining companies’ desire to be seen as “just passing through” is aided by the fact that in the early days this sparsely populated rural area offered a limited labour supply. “Importing” labour that could later be “exported” with relative ease suits the transient mindset of companies whose primary focus is the upcoming financial results. Over the years, the number of residents in the local community has grown exponentially but the mining companies remain committed to “importing” labour or the next best thing, using labour brokers. Like some sad dysfunctional relationship, the community, which is almost wholly dependent on the mining companies, struggles in vain to secure signs of commitment from them.
Of course there is nobody blameless in this tragic saga of corporate transience. If the community was united and better organised it would be better able to engage effectively with the mining companies, which seem chronically inept at spending their “social responsibility” funds effectively because they cannot identify genuine community representatives.
Or because, once identified, those representatives learn to enjoy the benefits of being part of a corporate social investment budget. And then, like their trade union colleagues who are generously rewarded by the employers, they abandon the needs of the community.
And then there is the government, at all three levels. Within Marikana there is a perception that most government officials have been co-opted by a share or the hope of a share in the corporate spoils, which is why Julius Malema’s new party was so enthusiastically received at last Friday’s commemoration service.
And all the while the church remains – sort of. As it happens, until recently the Marikana Catholic Church was actually a Dutch Reformed Church catering to the needs of the Afrikaans farming and mining community. Rather like the Survivor pub down the road, ownership has changed and it is now catering for a predominantly black clientele.