Permanent crisis function

by Maren Grimm

Spot on informal mineworker settlements

One of the starting points for the Plough Back The Fruits campaign has always been to amplify the voices of those workers and their communities in the raw material extraction areas in South Africa, right at the beginning of supply and value chains of global corporations. While the employees of the mining companies have at least trade union representation, which must be included in collective bargaining and decisions affecting the respective sector, there is hardly any publicly perceivable, accepted and legitimate representation of the interests of the informal settlements surrounding the mines, where most of those workers live. For the companies, the responsibility for their employees effectively ends when they leave the factory premises and the formalization and acknowledgement of the informal settlements by state authorities is a very complex issue. Compliance with the existing social plans for mining companies is not monitored particularly strictly, also because of existing legal grey areas. The settlements are mostly ignored by politicians and the people have to either do it themselves or fight for every improvement of the infrastructure. Or they are depending on “voluntary” measures of the companies, which in turn present themselves as charitable. Furthermore, a large part of the residents has moved in from other states or the surrounding foreign countries, making it even more difficult to organize their representation of interests. In addition to the government authorities, the so-called tribal authorities have extensive powers for mining and land rights.

Covid-19 to highlight existing problems

In the first newsletter we reported from the Platinum Belt. At the beginning of the lockdown, a large part of the miners had left the Platinum Belt for their home regions. But already in mid-April 2020 many mining companies started to call their staff back to the mines. Meanwhile we are seeing reports that workers who are not “needed” are being left on their own, as the tightened safety conditions lead to smaller teams going underground. It appears that more workers have been recalled than can currently be included in the shift work. The already tense situation on the South African labour market is leading some companies to treat their permanent workers increasingly like day labourers and they do not seem to be too afraid of the consequences.

It remains to be seen how the resumption of work in the mines will continue. On May 16th the first Covid-19 cases at Impala Platinum in a platinum mine in Limpopo State were reported. Further cases in the mining sector were reported on 20th May from a gold mine near Mafikeng in North West State. In both cases, workers had been tested after returning from the Eastern or Western Cape before going underground again. Trade union AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) is now calling for blanket testing for all workers in mining operations. This demand is of high interest also for the surrounding settlements. And they are a matter of interest to the whole of South Africa, as attention to the economically so important mining sector could help to ensure that the situation of the people in the countless informal settlements throughout the country also receives some of this attention.

Research in the (social) media has shown for the time being that those in positions of political responsibility are making efforts to present themselves committed and, like the companies, to make their presence felt in the media. For example, Sibanye-Stillwater and Anglo Gold donated protective masks and gloves worth 1 million Rand (equivalent to approx. 50,000 EUR) to the South African Ministry of Health. A user posted under a photo of the donation, which the health officer of Gauteng Province published on Twitter:

“Impala and Anglo Platinum paid employees during Lockdown whilst your Sibanye-Stillwater didn’t! You should’ve REJECTED Sibanye’s cheap PR coz salaries have greater impact than this meagre donation!!“ Reports on the distribution of food parcels and hygiene articles are mainly found on social media sites of NGOs such as MACUA (Mining Affected Communities United in Action) and other grassroots organizations, which can provide some self-organized support on the basis of donations in some of the settlements.

Important success in court

Directly after the call back to the mines in April, AMCU responded by filing a lawsuit against the Ministry of Mines to ensure comprehensive protection from Covid-19 infection. The NGO network MACUA had joined the AMCU lawsuit in order to emphasize the demand for the protection of the affected communities. As early as May 2018, MACUA had already tried by legal means to make the voices of the people from the informal settlements heard in the consultations for the mining charter.


“For many years, these communities have fought to be included in industry discussions, to be heard and consulted in decision-making processes relating to mining”, writes Busisiwe Kamolane from Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University. “They have fought for the right to say no, the right to participate meaningfully, the right to be recognised as key stakeholders and to have a voice in decisions that ultimately affect them. Yet on numerous occasions, they have at best been ignored.” Now, however, the AMCU´s and MACUA’s complaint was upheld on May 3, 2020.

“It is not disputed that the vulnerability of mineworkers in turn renders the communities in which they live vulnerable to COVID-19. There are almost half a million mineworkers in South Africa. Any COVID-19 infection at a mine is likely to spread to the communities surrounding the mine where the mineworkers live.” Those were the words of the presiding judge to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy, which is addressed by the lawsuit. He demands that representatives of informal settlement residents must be heard in the future and they also must be included in the safety concepts.

An issue of proportionality

The judgment obtained here under corona conditions is thus an important stage victory. Richard Spoor, one of the AMCU lawyers, drew this comparison on Twitter on 11 May:

“About 301,000 people fell ill with TB (tuberculosis) in South Africa in 2018 resulting in 63,000 deaths. TB spreads the same way Covid-19 does and the disease disproportionately targets the poor. But no one ever suggested a lockdown.” These figures strongly emphasize, that for many South Africans Covid-19 is just another one among already existing persistent disasters.

Repetitive loops or the chance for sustainable improvements?

The current forecasts for the industrial sector PGM mining (PGM: Platinum Group Metals) are downright exuberant, as this press release shows: “In its latest report, the World Bank expects the demand for battery metals to increase by 500 percent by 2050”.

Before and during the takeover by Sibanye-Stillwater, Lonmin’s market value had been heavily downgraded, the company was presented as barely profitable and in dire need of restructuring. Barely six months after the takeover, Sibanye-Stillwater is now the world’s second largest PGM producer and a company that has done everything right from an investor’s perspective. On May 18, a South African business magazine announced “Marikana proves to be a standout performer in Sibanye’s hands. Former Lonmin assets show their true worth with new management.”

To achieve this, some 5,000 permanent workers were laid off at the end of 2019. And in the current pandemic crisis situation, fear of further layoffs seems to be more than legimate. Despite the excellent long-term prognoses, Sibanye is also continuing to make threatening gestures: “We are only making 50% of possible profits,” a company spokesman said also on May 18. And AMCU Chairman Joseph Mathunjwa warned that Covid-19 could be used by companies as a reason for further layoffs. Thus many workers even perceive the threat of unemployment as the greater threat than Covid-19.

This game is by no means new in South Africa, the mechanisms and balances of power are well known. It is to be hoped that the current situation not only reinforces known problems, but can contribute to the fact that the people concerned, in alliance with NGOs, committed lawyers and trade unions, can manage to further increase the pressure on the government.

Already on May 13th, an open letter by different actors from civil society was published in the Daily Maverick, calling for a perspective on the crisis that it must finally fuel significant changes. Cry of the Xcluded is a campaign founded in February 2020, for which AMCU and the trade union federation SAFTU settled a longstanding dispute. The open letter begins as follows:

“We will emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic into a global economic crisis and mass unemployment. South Africa was already in an economic recession before the pandemic. We have had mass unemployment for years. We have had more than 14 million people going to bed hungry. Now, everything is set to get worse. A tragedy of huge proportions is unfolding and only by standing together can complete catastrophe be averted.


Our answer is this. We need a just transition to a radical Green New Deal. Central to that, we want government to hire three million new workers. To be employed directly, working for central and local government. Provincial government must be absorbed into local government to ensure greater capacity.

When must this happen?