SAfrica mines struggle to upgrade apartheid hostels
By Eric Onstad
RANDFONTEIN, South Africa (Reuters) – South African gold
miner Remaketsi Lekoala misses his wife and five children.
When he started work at the Cooke gold mine west of
Johannesburg 18 years ago, he knew he would have to leave his
family at home hundreds of miles away and live in a crowded,
all-male hostel due to the strict apartheid laws.
After white-minority rule was abolished 11 years ago, he
hoped to reunite his family in improved housing so he could see
them more than twice a year, at Christmas and Easter.
Although some mines have made great strides in upgrading
housing, workers like Lekoala say they have been left behind.
“You don’t have any privacy,” he said. “It’s difficult not
knowing what kind of problems my family are having. I can’t
help as a father should.”
Frustration over wages and housing boiled over when South
Africa’s biggest mining union called a nationwide strike on
Sunday, the first in the sector in 18 years.
Housing was a contentious issue leading to the strike call
as unions sought a doubling of the “living-out” allowance that
helps workers find accommodation outside the hostels.
Miners, who descend nearly 2 miles underground to drill ore
in sweltering narrow tunnels, typically earn 2,500-3,000 rand
($387-$464) per month. They have rejected a wage raise offer of
4.5-5 percent and are demanding an increase of 12 percent.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said about 100,000
gold miners, which it represents, had launched their strike on
Sunday to demand higher wages.
Progress has been patchy in boosting living conditions for
the nearly 200,000 gold miners in South Africa, the world’s
biggest producer of gold and platinum.
Some mines offer workers family housing, but the
overwhelming bulk of gold miners still live in hostels. The
employer’s federation, the Chamber of Mines, puts the
proportion at 60-70 percent while unions say it’s 80 percent.
The single-sex hostels are a potent reminder of a brutal
history that dates back a century when South Africa’s white
mining magnates insisted on using migrant blacks, often from
neighboring countries, as cheap laborers.
“I lived in hostels and it was horrible, we were about 18
in a 3-by-3 meter (yard) room with our bicycles in the middle,”
said Kgosi Mogaki, Director of Social Plan at the Mines
Current conditions at the hostels vary widely.
The extent of crowding is a matter of dispute, with Lekoala
and colleagues saying their rooms still have 16-18 men and mine
owner Harmony Gold insisting the density is much less.
Harmony said it was unable to provide Reuters access to
view the hostels where Lekoala and colleagues live before this
article was released.
AngloGold Ashanti, the world’s second-biggest gold
producer, says over the past decade it has managed to halve the
average number of men per room at its hostels to six and
Harmony says the average density at its hostels is 4.2.
AngloGold Spokesman Alan Fine said some hostels offer
semi-private sleeping quarters and more improvements are in
store as the firm moves to implement an industry-wide agreement
with unions to give at least 50 percent of miners a choice of
accommodation by 2009 and give all miners an option by 2013.
Harmony’s Jackie Mathebula, executive in charge of human
resources, says the firm plans to spend 25.2 million rand ($3.9
million) over the next year to upgrade hostels.
The industry says it has not moved faster to improve
housing due to the sheer scale and expense of providing housing
in the most labor-intensive mining sector.
“It’s the numbers; it’s a tremendously expensive exercise,”
said Frans Barker, chief negotiator at the Chamber of Mines.
The housing problem is less severe in other mining sectors
such as coal, which has smaller numbers and which recruits more
workers from nearby communities.
The NUM says that crowding at hostels is still a problem at
mines like Harmony’s Cooke, exacerbating health and social
“To just group so many people in the same room, it’s
unacceptable, it affects people’s lives. If someone has TB
(tuberculosis), another person will be easily infected,” said
Angeline Sokwaliwa, NUM housing shop steward at Cooke and
Harmony’s other mines in the Randfontein area.
The hostels are also a factor in the rapid-fire spread of
HIV/AIDS in South Africa, where an estimated 6.5 million of the
country’s 47 million population are infected with HIV, she
“The miners get bored in the hostels and they go to the
nearest informal settlement and socialize there with ladies.”
Unions say they are demanding a more than doubling of the
“living-out” housing allowance to 1,500 rand per month –
provided to those who want to move out from hostels — because
the current allowance is only enough to live in a shantytown.
In addition to the long-term agreement with unions to
improve housing conditions, mining firms are also under
pressure from the government to boost standards.
The Mining Charter that became law last year seeks to
improve opportunities for the black majority, demanding greater
equity ownership, more management positions and better living
conditions for miners and their communities.
Although miners like Lekoala look forward to the day when
they can bring families to live with them, not all miners want
to move out of shared accommodation.
Miners who are reluctant to uproot families from their
homes in the countryside want improved conditions at hostels.
“We are not saying demolish (all) hostels,” said Mogaki at
the Mines Ministry. “What we are saying is that where there are
hostels, let them be an accommodation that when you go there
you don’t feel you are being humiliated.”