* Many S.Africa miners may return to the land
* Cost, price pressure stokes tension in mining
* Former subsistence farmers grow fruit for sale
* Fruit success story may offer path for some ex-miners
By Ed Stoddard
NOQHEKWANA, South Africa, Oct 11 Peter
Somakhephu's life has followed a pattern familiar to many black
South African miners: he exchanged a marginal existence of
peasant farming in his home village for low-paid labour
underground before being forced back onto the land.
His life has come full circle but he has broken the cycle of
grinding subsistence by moving from staple crops for family
consumption to small-scale fruit production for commercial sale,
a business that was, until recently, far out of reach.
His example may hold promise for some of the tens of
thousands of miners set to lose their jobs in coming years, a
new wave of unemployment that will fuel tensions in the
countryside and in the grim shanty-towns that ring the mines.
Anglo American Platinum's (Amplats) move to cut
3,300 jobs to restore profits sparked a 13 day-strike by miners
desperate for work in a country where four out of ten adults,
and more than half of the youth, have none.
It ended on Thursday after Amplats agreed to give the
workers voluntary severance packages instead of laying them off.
This means they will get more compensation, though the
amounts were not immediately specified. The company had already
rowed back from a target of 14,000 jobs under pressure from the
government and unions, underscoring the gravity of the issue.
The social consequences of mine job losses are widespread
because the typical worker in the industry has eight dependants
often in two separate families, one near the mines and the other
back in their rural villages.
The African National Congress (ANC), in power for almost two
decades, is likely to win next year's election, but more radical
political forces are circling and Deputy President Kgalema
Motlanthe has called youth unemployment a "ticking time bomb".
Resentment runs deep. Somakhephu, an ex-platinum miner, says
the fruits of his labour owe nothing to the industry, which has
not lived up to public expectations for a wider redistribution
of wealth since white minority rule ended in 1994.
"I built these from farming, not from mining," said
Somakhephu, a sprightly 61-year-old, as he gestured to the set
of five small but sturdy houses that crown his rural homestead
in the rugged hills of South Africa's Eastern Cape province.
Behind him to the east neat rows of orange trees sloped to
the valley floor, to the west stood lush banana plants.
Somakhephu's neighbour Elliot Belem, 56, standing among his
orange trees, said farming his 2.5 hectare plot was better than
life in the gold mines, where he was a first-aid worker.
"It's better to be a farmer than a miner. I have no
supervisor, I am self-employed," he said.
They are part of a project that has seen 5,200 households
plant more than 110,000 crop trees since 1999, according to
South Africa's Agricultural Research Council, a state agency,
and Is'Baya Development Trust, the NGO behind the initiative.
The project, which has received no funding from the mining
industry, aims ultimately to form co-ops to help with marketing
and distribution in a sector still dominated by white commercial
farmers whose industrial-scale operations have made South Africa
the world's second-largest citrus exporter after Spain.
Commercial farming, even on a small scale, was not an option
before for people like Somakhephu in this rural backwater once
known as the Transkei, one of the quasi-independent "homelands"
which provided mines with a cheap source of migrant labour.
The Is'Baya project has not only given black farmers and
would-be farmers training in the care of citrus but also the
trees themselves, unobtainable in the past, when apartheid
restrictions kept black South Africans from markets and capital.
"I went back to farming when I had to leave the mines in
1985 but I had no equipment and did not know how to get the
trees," said Belem.
Mining firms say they are putting resources and retraining
into what are now called "labour sending areas", though not in
this remote village, which has also been neglected by the state.
Perched near jagged cliffs overlooking South Africa's "Wild
Coast," Noqhekwana has no electricity or running water and lies
at the end of a rough dirt track.
Amplats has pledged "retraining and job-seeker" support for
laid-off workers in such areas but has not given details.
Rival Lonmin said it offers skills training in
farming for workers close to retirement or facing layoff in
recognition of the rural backgrounds of much of its workforce.
Still, there are limits to what the land can sustain. The
loss of tens of thousands of jobs from the gold mining sector in
1994 to 2004, coupled with a 40 percent increase in the
population, means it is already eroded and overgrazed.
"Land erosion and deterioration ... are already seen as
results of this newly induced population pressure," researchers
noted in a 2004 study in the Journal of the South African
Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.
The new wave of job losses comes as South Africa's gold
industry, which has produced a third of the bullion ever mined,
faces growing cost pressures and depressed metal prices in the
world's deepest mines.
About half of the country's platinum mines are also losing
money at current prices.
The migrant labour force is now partly their undoing as the
low skills of a semi-literate workforce constrain productivity
while income disparities fuel labour unrest. Dozens of people
have been killed in the past 20 months in a turf war between the
ANC-allied National Union of Mineworkers and rapidly growing
Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
Impala Platinum (Implats) has said part of its
focus has been on raising the literacy levels of its labour
force, a trend which can help lift its own productivity and give
former miners more of a chance outside of the shafts.
In its latest annual report, Implats says 80 percent of its
workforce had basic levels of adult literacy in 2013, over
double the 30 percent recorded in 2008.
The fledgling fruit farmers still face many obstacles - not
least a perception in the region that agriculture here is still
largely a peasant and not commercial activity, unlike in other
regions, where white farmers predominate.
In the town of Lusikisiki, about 50 kms (30 miles) from
Somakhephu's groves, Monica Nduli, a middle-aged woman selling
fruit on the roadside, said she sourced her produce from
KwaZulu-Natal, 150 km (90 miles) away.
"In Transkei? Never! It's only in KwaZulu-Natal that we get
such fruit," she told Reuters.