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Hell that shames Mandela-Zuma

Published May 15, 2010

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By Sheree Bega

Almost a decade ago, Nelson Shikwambane left his family behind in Mozambique and ventured to South Africa because he believed it was the "land of plenty".

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Shikwambane blames the controversial black investment group, Aurora Empowerment Systems, for shattering his dreams of a better life.

"I keep thinking this must be another part of South Africa," he says, gesturing to the mine's rundown hostel, where water, food and electricity supplies have been cut for several weeks because of Aurora's mounting debts.

Since late March, more than 2 000 mineworkers have been striking over the unpaid and sporadic payment of their wages by Aurora, which is in a protracted bid to acquire the liquidated Pamodzi Gold, which previously owned Grootvlei.

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Aurora's managing director is Zondwa Mandela, a grandson of former president Nelson Mandela, and whose chairman Khulubuse Zuma is President Jacob Zuma's nephew - politically well-connected names that workers blame for the lack of government attention to their plight.

"I've never been in a situation like this," says Shikwambane, a local National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) representative. "This is a disaster. How can Aurora be given a licence to mine but they cannot pay their workers or any of their suppliers?"

Last month, Aurora hastily convened a press conference to announce a R750 million cash injection from Swiss funders, but insurance, some wages and UIF contributions remain unpaid.

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Life in the hostels is unbearable, says Shikwambane. Residents are forced to relieve themselves in the open because of fly-infested, clogged toilets without water to flush.

"Because of the condition of the food, people have runny stomachs and there are no toilets. This, for a country hosting the World Cup."

After weeks of empty promises from Aurora that workers would be paid, Category B (unskilled) mineworkers received 50 percent of their March salary last week.

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The skilled Category A workers still await their March salaries and have only received half of February's pay.

The 500-odd workers who remain in the hostels survive on handouts from relatives or their unions. They blame a spike in diarrohea cases on "rotten" food provided through a contractor who sporadically supplies food to hostel residents.

Carlos Zombeni, 61, sits in the dying sunlight and washes his clothes with the same water he has used to drink, cook and bathe in - precious water he has begged from a kindly neighbouring homeowner.

His food is uneaten. "The food is not right," he says, of the "fong kong pap", which bounces under his fingers like a sponge. "I will rather throw it away. We all do."

Gideon du Plessis of trade union Solidarity, which feeds over 100 white Grootvlei families who have been plunged into a similar crisis, says the union is expanding its feeding project to feed more black mineworkers.

"There are close to 2 000 employees in a more desperate situation. Most are migrant workers. Each has an average of eight people dependant on them. That's 16 000 people."

He says 17 black families have registered for food parcels and were to collect them this week.

"It seems all the unions are now handing out food parcels," he said.

Aurora, which did not respond to the Saturday Star's enquiries, has blamed the workers for its stalled operations and for "relaxing in their hostels".

There is a sense of despair, not recreation, at the cramped hostels, many lit by candles and surrounded by rank streams of dirty water. A bakkie drives past, its occupants selling water to those who can afford it.

Outside, young groups of men huddle together waiting for the endless stream of trucks that arrive to recruit the mineworkers.

"Some have gone to Limpopo, to Rustenberg and Randfontein," explains Shikwambane. "If Aurora has to open again, we'll have a problem with skilled labour. I'd say 500 of the skilled labourers have been taken by other mine companies. It's better to work than to just sit here doing nothing."

But those trucks will leave 58-year-old Jaime Valoi, a father of nine, his body weakened by TB, in the dust. "I'm so hungry. Look how slim I am now," he says, patting his flat stomach. "Here it is rubbish. There is no money to eat. There is no water to wash. The toilets are f***** up. I cannot send my family money and they are struggling."

Three workers have died in these hostels in the past week - one from an HIV/Aids related illnesses - while the cause of the other three deaths remains unclear, according to NUM.

"Every day there is stress here. Maybe they died of hunger. The clinic is closed because staff there are waiting for their money. The problem is with treatment - the clinic is closed. They now have to go to the Far East Rand hospital, but they are sent home because they can't get treatment without a letter from the clinic."

In the silence, a burst of laughter issues from a group of men sitting on stools fashioned from egg crates, playing morabaraba.

"We're here waiting for anything to happen," says Shikwambane. "I cannot say there's a future when we're still owed money. It's a long time that we're not eating. I don't have much hope of getting our money.

"Some of the workers fear going home because their wives will not welcome them. They are struggling to get the UIF funds and access to benefits."

Shikwambane, who terms his work in the narrow underground passages "dangerous but beautiful", believes there's still some gold left to mine in Grootvlei.

But he may not stay to uncover it. "If you come back next week, maybe you will find we won't be here. Our work permits have expired.

"We're tired of waiting."

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