Squalor surrounds South Africa's platinum treasure chest

MARIKANA, South Africa Wed Aug 22, 2012 1:01pm EDT

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MARIKANA, South Africa (Reuters) - Children play and dogs and chickens forage near sewage spilling from pit latrines in the shadow of Lonmin's Marikana mine in South Africa which extracts the platinum used to make jewelry and auto parts.

Ramshackle settlements cluster around this mine operated by the world no. 3 platinum producer and around others in the North West Province, the world's prime platinum mining region.

"This is no way to live or grow children. Fifty people share one toilet. We don't have water," said a woman who identified herself as Pinky, the wife of a striking rock drill operator at Marikana who shares a one-room tin box with her husband and two children.

The mine and its squalid settlement was the scene of labor violence last week which killed 40 miners, two police and two security guards, the deadliest security incident in South Africa since the end of white minority rule 18 years ago.

A report this week by the Bench Marks Foundation, a church-linked organization that monitors corporate responsibility, found that living conditions for South Africa's black miners on the platinum belt were the worst in the country.

"The conditions in the township constructed by Lonmin are appalling. There are broken down drainage systems spilling directly into the river at three different points," Bench Marks Foundation executive director John Capel said, adding this situation had been left unattended for the last five years.

It was not supposed to be this way.

South Africa's former liberation movement and now ruling African National Congress was born out of South Africa's fight against apartheid, which also included rejection of the exploitation of poor black miners toiling in the country's fabled gold reefs and other mineral deposits.

Nelson Mandela's ANC promised a better life for all when it took power with the end of apartheid in 1994.

But despite Africa's largest economy devoting billions of dollars to infrastructure, housing, healthcare and education, income disparity and unemployment have mushroomed while chronic joblessness has helped entrench a massive underclass.

"BACK TO THE DARK YEARS"

These circumstances, combined with ballooning living costs and a demand for better pay, led to the violent strike by Marikana workers which culminated in the police shooting of 34 miners on Thursday.

They died in a hail of gunfire after running into a line of police at the sprawling mine facility about 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Johannesburg.

The violence rekindled memories of apartheid-era clashes when police representing the white minority rulers fired on masses of blacks seeking freedom. This time it was the ANC government's police, black and white, who shot the workers, all black.

"In an instant our country was plunged back into the dark years of our past and we saw the rainbow nation fast disappearing in the wake of such brutality," Mathole Motshekga the ANC's chief whip said during a parliamentary debate on Tuesday.

While mineworkers have seen their wages steadily increase over the years and mining firms have built schools, hospitals and roads to help communities around shafts, many of the 500,000 people in the sector still have trouble making ends meet.

Lonmin provides male workers who live by themselves with shared quarters in solid brick dormitories with electricity and running water.

Those workers who wish to be with their partners and children are given a "sleep out" allowance to find accommodation either at the nearby shantytown, Wonderkop, or elsewhere.

"Wages and other allowances are negotiated under union agreements and the amounts decided on are not up to the company," Lonmin spokeswoman Sue Vey said.

"Those who have families live outside mine property and the conditions there are by their own design."

The base pay for miners is about $500 a month but when production bonuses and benefits are added the average miner grosses nearly double that, according to industry and government data.

But the money goes quickly. Most miners maintain two households, with one on or near the mine site and the other for extended families who live apart from them. The average miner supports 8-10 people, according to industry data.

DRILLING IS "BREATHING DUST"

A large portion of the 3,000 workers who went on strike at Lonmin are rock drill operators who operate hand-held machines breaking apart rock walls for the ore which yields the platinum.

A rock drill operator who gave his name as Isaac left his village in impoverished Lesotho for the riches of South Africa's mines nine years ago. Now he struggles to eke out a living.

He has been off the job for almost two weeks demanding a salary of 12,500 rand ($1,500) a month, arguing the hardship endured underground is not reflected in his pay packet.

His pay-slip shows he earns 8,763.88 rand ($1,100) a month which includes an allowance of 1,000 rand to live off mine property.

After deductions for tax, medical aid and "deferred pay" of 1,300 rand a month, which will form part of a lump sum payment at the end of his contract, Isaac takes home 4,556 rand ($550).

"That's not enough. I have four children to support in Lesotho and eight other family members. I have to pay rent, buy groceries, pay debts and try to live here."

Using a mop wedged in a plastic chair, Isaac explains how to control the heavy, gyrating drill while it chips away at meters of rock face a day.

"The conditions underground are tough. It is hot, dusty, you struggle to breath," he says, displaying heavily calloused hands.

"You are breathing dust particles all day. If we need to go to the toilet, we have to wait until home time. It takes an hour to walk to the toilet underground," Isaac said.

Following what is being called the "Marikana massacre", tensions in mines across South Africa are running high with fears that labor unrest over low wages and poor living conditions could spread to other mines.

"You work so hard, for so little. You might as well be dead," said a 23-year-old Lonmin worker from Umtata in South Africa's eastern regions who works on lighting the underground tunnels. He asked to be called Thulani, fearing reprisals if his name was published.

($1 = 8.2180 South African rand)

(Additional reporting by Tshepo Tshabalala and Sherilee Laxmidas; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Peter Graff)

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