The buses stood empty, waiting to take the workers home. Each bus had a big sign on the windscreen: Lesotho, Transkei, Kwa-Zulu and so on. As the thousands of workers got into the buses, they knew that they were taking a long journey — a long journey back to hunger and maybe even death.
The hostels were soon empty. The job was done. Twenty three thousand workers were fired from the four Impala Platinum mines near Rustenburg. The mines are owned by a company called Gencor. It was the biggest firing ever in South African history. Some called it one of the biggest crimes in South African history.
Learn and Teach spoke to some of the workers. They told us about life under Gencor and the strike.
LIFE UNDER GENCOR
Boemo Mongoato is one of the 23 thousand workers who was fired. He worked for the Bafokeng North mine for five years. He comes from Botswana.”The workers were unhappy for a long time on the mine,” says Boemo. “We were not happy because we could not join the union that we like—that is the National Union of Mineworkers(NUM).
“We were also very angry about wages and working conditions. A black mine worker starts at R140 a month. Don’t ask me what a white mineworker starts at. It’s a secret.”
The working conditions here are very bad. If there is an accident, a black miner can die before they take him to the top. They will often take the white miner up first.
“The white miners don’t like to share the cage (lift) with us. The whites come down last — but they are the first to leave. We black miners must squeeze into the catch like animals. Sometimes you will find only one white worker in the cage—but he will not share.”
Another worker, Aggrippa Mathonsi, told us that he supports 13 people on his salary. Every second month he send money to his mother in Eshowe in KwaZulu. He told us many bad things but he was most upset about the food.
“I want to talk about the food,” says Aggrippa.’ ‘They give us food that is good for pigs — not human beings. Cabbage mixed with carrots and water, just like porridge. It’s not cut neatly, just taken and thrown into the pot. I have eaten this type of food for 5 years — since I came here.”
23 DEMANDS ON DECEMBER 23
Stephen Masupha told us how he worked for 10 to 12 hours each shift. He is from Lesotho and he has a wife and four children. He told us how the strike started. “In December many of us NUM members had a meeting,” says Stephen. “We talked about our problems. We decided that if we did not get paid extra for public holidays — Boxing Day and New Years Day— we should not go down.”
On December 23 the workers gave the bosses a list of demands. There were 23 demands. Some of the demands were:
The workers wanted to join a union they trusted. Their choice was the NUM.
The workers wanted proper death benefits. The workers had to pay R1,54 every month. But they still had to pay from their pockets everytime a worker died on duty.
Workers say they were forced to work long overtime hours without pay. They wanted proper overtime pay.
Extra pay for public holidays like Boxing Day and New Years Day.
The bosses refused to talk to the workers about their problems. On December 26 many workers from different sections went on strike.
But it was on the 1st January that workers from all four mines went on strike. The bosses hid behind the law. They said that the mines were in Bophuthatswana — and that it was against the law to strike.
On the next two days the workers went back to work. Stephen Masupha carries on with the story: “When we got our payslips on the third day of the new year, we saw that we were not paid for the 1st January.
On all our slips was written ‘absent without leave’. We then decided not to fight or break anything — we just sat in our hostels. All of us were united. We felt very proud.
On Monday 6th some workers from Mozambique went back to work. Afterwards the strike got weaker. Other workers also began to think like this. This broke our unity. We were divided. The mine police now started to take our leaders. The strike started to break at Bafokeng first. But at the lmpala and Wildebeestfontein mines our unity was very strong. That is why most of the fired workers came from these two mines”
“I and 47 others were seen as leaders and supporters of NUM,” says Boemo Mongoato. “Some impimpis with covered faces pointed us out. The police came and arrested us. We were in jail for 12 days.
“In jail there were two workers with bullet wounds. We suffered in jail. We got very little food and no blankets. While we were in jail we heard that they fired 20 000 workers. We could not believe it.
“Then some people from NUM came to help us when we went to court. We got R100 bail. Now I don’t know what I am going to do. I was feeding many people with my money. I feed my wife and five children. I was helping my mother and father, my brother and his four children. I was also feeding my sister and her two children. There will be many hungry mouths.”