Carletonville - The depressed faces of the men clutching their bags with nowhere to go after spending a night outside in the wet weather spoke volumes.
Some had used their last travelling money from as far as Lesotho and Mozambique to South Africa only to be greeted by locked gates and a heavy security presence at the hostels that have been home for some time.
About 200 of the men sat dejected outside the main entrance to Harmony Gold’s Kusasalethu mine near Carletonville on Thursday.
Harmony said the men were not expected to return to its hostels after a decision was taken to close the Kusasalethu operation “until further notice” following violent strikes last year.
The decision had been taken around December 21, immediately following the staging of an underground sit-in by more than 1 000 employees, apparently in solidarity with those who had been suspended for taking part in an illegal strike.
Mine spokeswoman Marian van der Walt said Harmony had decided to delay its post-festive-season reopening at Kusasalethu to allow a review of the financial and operational status following violent strikes in December.
With a few hundred workers now back on the mine and left homeless after Harmony decided to close the hostels as well, the question that remains is whether every employee knew this past month that they were not expected back at work.
Van der Walt said workers were sent home on December 21 and told to remain there until they were notified otherwise. She said notices on the temporary closure of the mine and hostels were distributed through the media, and the unions had been notified.
Van der Walt said employees had also been told they would be paid their basic salaries while at home.
Workers’ committee member Lennox Tshisa, however, told a different story. He challenged Van der Walt’s statement that workers had been notified.
“Who will use his last money to travel from Malawi or Mozambique when they’ve been told not to report for duty and ensured that their salaries will still be paid?
“It is clear that workers were not informed of this until they arrived at the mine and realised they were homeless,” he said.
A worker at the mine, Samson Mbele, said more workers were still arriving on Thursday, only to join their colleagues who had been locked out.
“We have already spent a night out in the rain and have not been given access to our rooms to at least get our blankets and other belongings.
“Most of us used our last money on travelling, and today we woke up in the bare open; tired, hungry and dirty with no showers to turn to,” Mbele said.
“No one would have reported for duty if we had heard that we’re not expected. This seems to us like a ploy to dismiss us.”
Another worker, Morake Sedikane, said they had been warned by security officials not to attempt to break into the hostel accommodation.
“Miners are being provoked, and security has said it to us that they’ve been instructed to shoot if workers start any violence. What is expected of a man who is penniless, hungry and homeless at this time of the year?” Sedikane asked.
Van der Walt said Harmony was expecting hostel dwellers to go back to their homes.
She said the mine would continue paying the salaries of more than 5 000 workers while Kusasalethu remained closed.
The situation at Harmony is symptomatic of the problems the mining industry faces.
The industry was hit by widespread salary strikes that claimed more than 40 lives during the strike by workers at Lonmin’s platinum mine at Marikana, North West, in August.
Experts have indicated that this past year’s problems were not necessarily the end of trouble for the mining sector, with workers still expected to ask for more salary increases, something they said would hurt the industry.
Economist Azar Jammine said: “If companies agree to give more and more in terms of salaries, this will drive them and investors out of the country. Companies that are forced to pay more than they can afford will suffer, and as a result, more and more jobs will be lost.”
He added: “The challenge is that workers don’t recognise or understand how business operates, and the truth is that higher salaries will destroy job opportunities.”
Another economist, Mike Schussler, said more strikes were expected in the first part of year, although they would not be as disruptive as in the past year.