Platinum miners are seen in this file photo.

Marikana - When Joao left an economically stagnant Mozambique in 1984 to work in a South African platinum mine, he was hoping to secure his financial future.

But after 30 years at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin in the north-western mining town of Marikana, the 63-year-old, who asked that his real name not be published, has nothing saved up.

The man, who heads a team of rock drillers at a depth of about 300 metres, lives in a bleak concrete room in a building shared with other miners and struggles to survive on 500 rand a month.

That is what remains of his salary of 4,272 rand after he has sent most of it to his wife and six children in Mozambique and paid rent and electricity.

“Lonmin does not need to pay me a pension because I was hired through a contractor,” said Joao, who hopes to retire and return home in a few years.

“I'm hoping they will give me at least something for all the years I have given to the mine.”

The wealth of Africa's second-biggest economy has largely been built by men like Joao since the discovery of gold and diamonds there in the late 19th century.

South Africa still holds about 80 per cent of the world's platinum reserves and more than 50 per cent of its gold reserves.

The entire mining sector contributes about 17 per cent directly and indirectly to gross domestic product and employs directly more than 500,000 people.

Twenty years after the end of apartheid, black miners are no longer confined to miserable hostels where their families were not allowed.

They get decent treatment from foremen, the mines are safer and there is health care.

Blacks hold management positions, including Lonmin chief executive Bennetor Magara.

But in some ways, not that much has changed.

Shacks of corrugated iron have sprung up in Marikana, which has grown from a rural village in the 1960s to a town of 20,000


Many of the miners choose to live in slums without clean water and electricity to obtain a housing allowance worth 1,000 rand that Lonmin gives to employees who do not live in company hostels.

Some shantytowns in the region do not have proper toilets, and a single water tap may serve many families.

Women collect firewood for cooking, the South African Civil Society Information Service reported.

Marikana is a melting pot, like South African mining localities have always been.

People come to work in mines from all over South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Swaziland and Lesotho, according to investigative journalist Madala Thepa.

The dusty, low-built town with mine installations towering in the distance is famous for a 2012 strike during which police gunned down 34 striking miners in a scandal that raised questions about whether South Africa's democratic government was using apartheid methods.

Ten security guards, police and miners trying to work were also killed days earlier by striking workers, said Thepa, who is investigating the strike.

Marikana and other mining localities are currently recovering from a five-month strike that ended in June.

About 70,000 miners working for three platinum companies put down their tools.

“We kept hearing about people who tried to go to work and got killed,” said Teresa, the 78-year-old widow of a miner whose son and grandson also work in the mine.

“Every time I thought, 'Oh God, the victim could be from my family,'“ said the woman who also asked that her real name not be used.

Some of the victims reportedly belonged to the National Union of Mineworkers, a traditional trade union that has been losing a power struggle with the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which staged the latest strike.

Police are investigating.

The walkout left many miners on the brink of starvation, but it won the three lowest-paid categories of workers, earning an average of 5,525 to 7,825 rand a month, an increase of about 3,000 rand within three years.

“While the rise is significant, it will not fundamentally alter the conditions of the miners' lives,” economist and researcher Gilad Isaacs said.

Platinum companies have done well over the past 14 years with executives pocketing huge salaries and shareholders large dividends, Isaacs said.

“Miners' wages have not increased that much in real terms since apartheid,” said Gavin Capps from the Society, Work and Development Institute, a research organisation at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University.

He said he believes the new wage hikes will make a considerable difference but “there is still quite some way to go.”

A Lonmin spokesman denied that South African miners were still being exploited by overseas or domestic masters.

“If we could pay them more, we would,” Happy Nkhoma said while pointing to falling platinum prices and rising production costs. Joao, who survived the strike on food his wife brought him from Mozambique, is not interested in that debate.

“I only hope the wage rise will help me at least a bit,” he said. - Sapa-dpa