Pretoria - Betty Gadlela looked drained as she sat in a plastic chair in front of her room, but she smiled and waved at her neighbours at Lonmin’s Middelkraal No 1 hostel.
Gadlela – a Swazi who lost her breadwinner husband, Sitelega, in the Marikana massacre in 2012 – had just returned from working a shift underground at the mine where her husband died, blasting a giant crater in her life.
She wasn’t always a mineworker. But in October Lonmin approached her and other families who had lost breadwinners, offering positions to “help fill the financial void”. She thus found some purpose in her grief. Initially the mother of six felt only loathing for the mine. She was too wracked by grief to consider accepting anything from Lonmin.
But she had to find some purpose in her grief. Which is why she was watching the sunset this week in her uniform of white overalls and black boots, her hard hat at her side.
Lonmin has included her in its programme to provide jobs for those who lost loved ones in the violence of 2012. The company has also given bursaries to 98 children from these families.
Gadlela, 46, is petite, but prepared to breach the norm. She is one of four widows working underground at Lonmin.
Other jobs have been filled by the adult children or relatives of miners who died when the police opened fire on August 16, 2012.
“When I was first approached, I knew I had to work,” Gadlela said.
“I decided that if I was given a spade to dig and I was not strong enough, then at least I would try.
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to do the same work as my husband as he was a team leader underground and I am just a beginner.”
Through her sorrow, Gadlela has become a believer in doing anything to repair the harm caused by her husband’s death.
Yet she is still yearning to know the “final truth of who shot Sitelega and why”.
Given the chance, she would ask the police how much they knew about the miners’ working conditions.
“Maybe then my heart would heal, but it won’t, so the pain continues to live with me,” she said.
“I wish the policemen at Marikana would come underground just for a day and see the conditions that the people they killed worked under. I work on a construction site underground and my job is to fix the pipes and ventilation.
“One day I went down the tunnel and I saw those men on their knees, crawling under rocks and scooping rocks with shovels. When they come out of there you can hardly recognise them. I looked at them and thought ‘This is how hard these men work daily’. They came out of there looking like monkeys, their faces covered with sand.
“That remains the most difficult part for me to contemplate. My husband went through that daily to provide for us and yet he had to die in that way fighting for R12 500 (a month).”
Gadlela said the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the deaths of the 34 miners during the strike had given her a chance to hear what had happened to her husband.
Gadlela does not know what to expect, but she is adamant that she is prepared to face anything.
Two blocks separate Gadlela’s hostel room from that of Matumelo Mohai who is from Lesotho. But the lives of the two women have been knitted together by what happened at Marikana.
And now they are working together underground at Lonmin’s Roland Shaft.
Mohai had just come out of the bath and offered a welcome and a warm handshake. She had changed from overalls into a bright dress.
“I spent the past two years travelling between home in Lesotho and the Marikana commission,” she said, her voice calm.
“Every month-end I would go back home to the misery and heartbreak which was the result of losing my husband, Telang Mohai.”
Mohai had discussed the possibility of taking a job at the mine with her in-laws and close relatives in Maseru. But her mother-in-law, whose husband died underground in a mining accident, disapproved, afraid to lose yet another member of her family.
“I was stressed and my health was deteriorating,” Mohai said.
“Two of our children are in boarding school and every time I came home they would be there for the weekend with needs I couldn’t meet. “I couldn’t stay at home for my children because I also felt I needed closure on how their father was killed.”
After wrestling with the idea of sending a male relative to take up Telang’s place, Mohai chose to leave home in October without telling her in-laws – and now works as a miner alongside Gadlela.