Johannesburg - A cough emanates from a figure covered in threadbare blankets lying on a rickety bed in a stuffy hostel room.
Once in a while the blankets shake as Xolile Jessie - the man under them - is gripped by a coughing fit.
Less than a metre away in another rickety bed lies Khoase Rantlhoisi. His face is bathed in sweat, his breath is laboured; speaking is too much effort.
The cement floor is ice-cold and the windows are tightly shut to contain what little heat there is in this claustrophobic room.
There isn’t much to eat, and the men, although sick, don’t know that they will get anything at all.
As Jessie and Rantlhoisi cough, their roommates stand around, looking at them with worry written on their faces.
“We don’t know what their problem is and are scared that we will catch whatever they have because they’re not getting any better and we live with them in the same room,” one miner said.
Jessie and Rantlhoisi are some of the miners who claim to have been unfairly dismissed by Murray & Roberts Aquarius when they embarked on a wage increase strike in 2009.
As if being dismissed wasn’t enough, they say the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) abandoned them despite their having made monthly payments to the union religiously for years.
They also allege that Murray & Roberts got the Red Ants and the police to kick them out of the company hostel.
In the process, many miners lost their passports, ID books and important documents. As a result, many of the foreigners haven’t been able to leave South Africa.
They were also not given their pension fund, they claimed.
Back home, some of their wives have left their marital homes, taking the children with them - they got tired of waiting for their husbands to return home.
Now the miners are jobless and homeless, and their families have left them.
They say their woes started in 2009 when NUM called the strike for wage increases. Then the union called it off after only two days despite the fact that it was legal, the men said.
They were dismissed, but the company reinstated some of them.
After they were evicted from the hostel, they lived on the side of the road for two days until the municipality gave them tents.
Later they moved into a private hostel, where they have been living since.
While they’re supposed to stay four to a room, the hostel is so crowded that about eight men, sometimes more, live in one room.
Hungry, jobless and without prospects because they’ve lost the documents legitimising their stay in South Africa, the men eat anything, including cats, to survive.
When The Star visited the hostel, this reporter was shown various cat skins, which bore testimony to this desperate fact.
Tsekiso Ntsohi, a 53-year-old rock driller, said they survived by getting piece jobs at farms in the area. Whatever money he gets he uses to buy food.
“If I don’t get a piece job, I hunt animals, even cats and skunks. We eat everything because we’re desperate,” he said.
Edward Sekoboto, 50, comes from Lesotho. He said that although there was a time when SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) staff arrived at the hostel to help miners with food parcels after hearing about their plight, this assistance was only for South Africans.
“They (Sassa) said foreigners would have to be helped by their own governments. South Africa used all our energy and now does not want us.
“Our matter is before the courts now and we are just waiting to know whether we have lost the case or not, so that we can get closure and get back home.
“We are old and Murray & Roberts just abandoned us like old shovels,” said Sekoboto.
The men were all employees of Murray & Roberts, which was contracted by Aquarius Platinum South Africa, but the contact between the two companies came to an end in 2012.
The Star contacted Murray & Roberts about the miners’ allegations of unfair dismissal and their claim that they were not given their pension payouts.
The company’s group communications executive, Eduard Jardim, said that when the contract with Aquarius was terminated, the latter took over the Murray & Roberts employees.
“Please contact Aquarius directly with this query,” he said.
Asked whether the miners used to contribute to a pension fund, as they claim, and why they haven’t been given their money, Jardim said: “Unless those miners are creating a new and formal case based on the speculation of unfair dismissal, not being paid a pension, etc, we are not going to be drawn into an issue that happened five years ago and was concluded in a South African court of law in our favour.”
Jardim also sent a copy of a court judgment showing the miners had gone to court over their dismissal and lost.
The miners have, however, not lost hope and are challenging the court’s decision.
According to their lawyer, Thabo Majuja, they have a strong case and a good chance of winning.
He said they lost on a technicality, as evident by the judgment, which wasn’t about the merits of the case.
“The reality is that they lost the case because they were badly represented by their previous attorney, who didn’t act in accordance with their instructions,” said Majuja, who is representing the men pro bono.
Speaking on behalf of Aquarius, Janet Whitaker said that in 2010 the court ordered Murray & Roberts to find accommodation for the miners until the dispute over whether they had been dismissed illegally had been settled.
However, Aquarius became responsible for funding the miners’ accommodation when the contract between them and Murray & Roberts ended.
“The miners were permitted to stay at the hostel until there was a ruling on their application to the CCMA/Labour Court on whether their dismissal was fair or not.
“The Labour Court ruled in December 2014 that their dismissal had been fair. Following the ruling, the owners of the hostel applied to the courts to have eviction orders issued. These were issued by the sheriff. The 60-day eviction period expired on April 30, 2015. It is regrettable that the people remaining in the hostel have been misled regarding the facts and their rights,” said Whitaker.
According to Gustav Machanisse, whose company owns the hostel, it was in fact Aquarius who applied for the eviction notice.
“Early this year Aquarius notified us that, based on a court order, the people must move out by the end of March 2015. This did not happen and they are still accommodated, and the daily rate is still being paid by Aquarius,” he said.
“There was a dispute declared by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to go on strike.
“A 48-hour notice was served to the company to go on strike. A compromise position was reached during negotiations within that 48-hour notice.
“We were forced to withdraw the notice while we were consulting about the new offer.
“The mass meetings were held throughout Murray & Roberts’ sites.
“Out of the 22 sites, 21 sites accepted the offer.
“The Kroondal site rejected the offer and embarked on a strike action.
“We had advised workers about the dangers of the strike by then, but they refused to heed our leadership.
“We stood by them throughout that difficult time, but they were all dismissed, over 3 000 of them.
“We negotiated with the company and some were reinstated.
“We took the company to court about the remainder of those who were not taken, and we fought the eviction through the courts, so they are still staying in the hotels.
“Some refused to be represented by NUM and changed unions. There is nothing we could do to force them to be represented by NUM.
“Those who are back to work are NUM members who accepted our representation.”