Marikana - Not long after reaching Nkaneng township, about 5km outside Marikana in the North West, Thethiswa Jali and Nophumzile Ngcwangu told us a couple committed suicide in the area three weeks ago.
“They couldn’t take the strike any longer,” Jali said.
“One mineworker died of hunger last week.”
Jali was referring to the biggest post-apartheid strike by mineworkers on the platinum belt which is entering its third month.
Most of the strikers are members of the Association of Construction and Mineworkers Union (Amcu), which, even after shutting down some mine shafts and regular protests to the headquarters of Lonmin, Anglo Platinum and Impala Platinum, has been unable to get the management to agree on a wage hike.
Even the top-notch mediators at the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration have failed to reach any resolution.
And the government, through Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, has not had much success either.
Amcu is demanding a R12 500 basic minimum wage for its members over four years.
In South Africa, like the rest of the world, the “no work, no pay” rule applies, and as a new union formed just two years ago, Amcu does not have a strike fund to provide financial support to its striking members.
So over the past three months workers say they have had to survive through solidarity – sharing and helping each other with what little they have.
“We borrow food or money. People are helping each other,” said Siyabonga Siyo, a married 32-year-old underground stock timbre worker.
Earlier we had met Jali as she was preparing a voluminous drum of umqombothi, a traditional beer.
Since the start of the strike, business has been slow, but she still somehow manages to support the four children and two grandchildren under her care.
Selling the whole drum at a fee of R12 a litre leaves Jali with an income of R500.
Before the mass action, a full drum of her special brew would be sold within two to three days. It takes much longer these days.
She does not receive a child support grant for her orphaned grandchildren, one of whom is just five.
Ngcwangu, a mother of six, said she received R1 200 a month in the form of a child support grant – the only income since her husband died in 1998.
Poverty has worn her face.
Since the strike, she and her neighbours can no longer afford to pay for the water that arrives on a truck and sells for R4 for 20 litres.
There is no visible running or potable water in Nkaneng township.
Now the women of the area make the trek to a stagnant stream on the edge of a railway line to fetch drinking water and wash their clothes.
Watching them at the stream is to witness poverty at its most desperate, its most devastating.
The dusty roads of nearby Bleskop give way to the muddy dirt roads of Wonderkop township in Marikana.
The area has become a political hotbed since 34 miners were gunned down by police during a strike in 2012.
Unlike in many other townships, there was not an ANC poster in sight.
Party leaders conceded that due to the violent clashes between ANC-aligned National Union of Mineworkers and Amcu, parts of the North West had been rendered no-go areas for the ruling party.
Instead there are posters of UDM president Bantu Holomisa, who was expelled from the ANC in the late 1990s.
He is popular in the area because many of the mineworkers come from the Eastern Cape, where Holomisa, a former Eastern Cape Bantustan army general, hails from.
Expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, who now leads the EFF, has also capitalised on the unrest in area.
Now, working together, the two leaders appear to be making gains in campaigning for next month’s general elections.
While visiting the area, the EFF held a small march with Marikana’s residents.
Marikana EFF ward convenerJaphta Molusi said miners were determined to see out the strike. They would not settle for anything less than the R12 500. “This three months (of striking) is nothing.
“In Ethiopia people were suffering longer than that but they got what they wanted in the end,” Molusi said.
He rejected rumours that desperate mineworkers had committed suicide or were dying of hunger. But mineworkers said it was tough.
Over past three months Siyo has often appealed to comrades for food to survive.
And while he voted for ANC president Jacob Zuma in 2009, he would not be drawn on who his choice will be this time round.
But fellow Wonderkop resident Asanda Mapusa, 18, is more candid.
A so-called “born free” – a misnomer given the dire socio-economic circumstances she was born into in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape – said she would not vote for the ANC.
Cradling her one-month-old daughter, she said Malema would get her cross. “No. I’m not voting for Zuma,” she said with a laugh.
Amcu also has little faith in the ANC’s ability to deliver on its promises, and accused it of being chummy with big business.
Health and safety secretary Dan Masimong accused Zuma of never bothering to respond to a memorandum of grievances Amcu delivered to the Union Buildings last month.
“This thing of suffering… we are used to it. The workers are earning sweets and peanuts.
“You earn money one week, but the next week there’s no money,” he said bitterly.
“To be honest, we are used to being hungry.
“So we’ve decided to be patient… We’d rather die than not get the R12 500.”