Welgedacht mine hostel. Picture: AVUSA

Interior of a hostel at Welgedacht Colliery in 1981: Cramped conditions were one of the abhorrent features of mining pre-1994. Picture: AVUSA

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Amnesty International touched some raw nerves in the mining sector in its recent report, "Smoke and Mirrors", which focuses on Lonmin’s unfulfilled promises to provide houses for its workers.

The report raises questions about the affordability of social commitments in a changing environment and how mines deal with migrancy and the temporary nature of their operations. But Amnesty International’s regional director, Deprose Muchena, declines to discuss some of the broader issues.

He says the point is that Lonmin committed in its 2006 social and labour plan (SLP) to build 5 500 houses for its employees, but only three showhouses were built. As a result, and despite the tragic protests at Marikana prompted by complaints about pay and living conditions, 13 500 Lonmin employees continue to live in squalid conditions in shacks without electricity and plumbing. That undermines their constitutional rights and their dignity.

Lonmin’s spokesman, Happy Nkhoma, confirms the facts but says Lonmin had to change its strategy after the 2008 global financial crisis. Employees did not take up the offer of houses, mainly because of indebtedness.

Muchena plans future research into whether other mining companies are meeting the commitments of their SLPs, as he suspects there is widespread defaulting.

Chamber of Mines head of employment relations Motsamai Motlhamme says the issue is not a simple matter.

SLPs were, until recently, kept confidential. They are binding legal commitments. Meeting SLP obligations is necessary to obtain and retain mining licences.

SLP commitments are supposed to represent the needs of communities around the mines, as understood by the local municipality and included in the municipality’s integrated development plan. But the department of mineral resources can add or subtract projects. Recently, some mining companies have begun to publish SLPs on their websites.

The 2010 charter does not stipulate building houses, Motlhamme says, but that mining companies must facilitate home ownership options. It stipulates that all hostels must be converted to single rooms or family units by 2014, and 90% of the chamber’s members have complied fully. Some mining companies have built no houses, others have built thousands. Some mining companies have gone to great lengths to subsidise mortgages, assist with applications, arrange insurance and negotiate premiums, buy or provide land, install services and help employees apply for government subsidies.

Ironically, both Amnesty International and Lonmin are in agreement that more decent rental accommodation is needed in Rustenburg. In a survey of Lonmin’s employees in 2008, over 80% said they wanted to rent, not buy.

Nkhoma says 225 one-bedroom flats and 100 two-bedroom flats for rent were completed near the Karee hostels early this year and construction of more rental flats at Wonderkop and Easterns is under way.

Surely, then, it would be pointless for Lonmin to continue building houses for sale?

Muchena says there is no evidence that Lonmin applied to the department of mineral resources, or was granted, permission to vary the 2006 SLP.

The accommodation dilemma has its roots in the crammed hostels that were one of the abhorrent features of mining pre-1994. In the 1990s, unions pressed for a living-out allowance instead. The allowance, which is about R2 100/month in the gold and platinum sectors and R4 000/month in coal, was intended to give employees the same amount in cash that it cost the mines to accommodate them in hostels and feed them, so they had the choice to live in or live out. The stipulation was that they had to live in decent accommodation.

Initially some companies checked on the quality of live-out accommodation, but that created tensions and was discontinued, Motlhamme says.

Manzini Zungu, spokesman for the strongest trade union in the platinum belt, the Association of Mineworkers & Construction Union (Amcu), says that though he has not yet seen the Amnesty International report, Amcu’s position is, first, that there are significant disparities in the living-out allowance paid by different sectors — gold, platinum and coal — and that this cannot be justified. Second, R2 100 is completely inadequate and will not pay for more than a shack.

Amcu believes mineworkers should be encouraged to own houses, otherwise they will return home at the end of their service with nothing. To afford to buy a house, they must be paid a considerably higher living-out allowance, Zungu says.

Motlhamme says chamber members agree there is a moral obligation to assist employees to buy houses if they wish. But some employees don’t want to pay off a mortgage on a house in Rustenburg or Klerksdorp.

Renting a room in a shack at Rustenburg costs about R500-R600/month, allowing workers to use the rest of their allowance for other things they may consider to be more important. Many are looking after extended families. Others would prefer to save to build or improve in the areas they come from, for example Lesotho or the Eastern Cape.

Muchena says the choice to live in a shack is not a choice. "No-one should be living in a shack."

In 2012 a special presidential package for the revitalisation of distressed mining towns was concluded, to ensure towns where mineworkers live offer social, health, educational and recreational amenities. It also entails developing viable economic activities. Government departments such as human settlements and mining companies have made some progress, Motlhamme says.