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Steelpoort at war with miners

Steelpoort, a mining town on the borders of Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, is supposed to be a melodious story of development but it seem to be tense.

The tension – between mining houses and local communities over employment and business opportunities – has got to a point where mining managers are even scared to drive into the nearby villages, particularly at night.

When visiting the town last weekend, The New Age tried to arrange evening meetings with the managers but was told it would be impossible and extremely risky.

“I don’t think it will be advisable to do that because of the tension in the area. It will be hard for our employees to drive around,” warned Songezo Zibi, spokesperson of Xstrata Alloys, a day before the visit.

Xstrata is one of the big companies operating in the area. Some community representatives alleged that they felt the negative impact of the mining activities with no economic benefit.

Two months ago, more than 2000 community members from the surrounding villages of Ga-Malekane, Ga-Mampuru, Tukakgomo and Maandagshoek organised a march and barricaded roads outside the Two Rivers Mine at Maroke in the Sekhukhune area. They burnt cars and stoned several passing vehicles.

Another episode of violence erupted at Platinum Australia’s Smokey Hills near Maandagshoek. Kobus Jansen van Rensburg, who was employed by JIC Mining Services, was killed when the minibus he was travelling in on his way home was attacked by an angry mob.

There are more than 100 mines operating from Lydenburg, Steelpoort, and Burgersfort up to Lebowakgomo. Steelpoort is home to Dwarsrivier chrome mine owned by Assmang, Tweefontein chrome mine owned by Samancor, Two Rivers and Modikwe platinum mines managed by Patrice Motsepe’s African Rainbow Minerals , as well as Mototolo platinum mine and the Lion Ferrochrome smelter, both owned by Xstrata.

Mining activities around the area have been centred on chrome and platinum for a long time. Collections of mining dumps on nearby mountains bear testimony.

About 2 million people are said to be living in the villages that have no electricity, clean water or proper roads. About 90% of young people in the Steelpoort areas are said to be unemployed.

Most communities rely on the heavily polluted Tubatse River that cuts through villages, for water. The river runs up to the Lepelle River.

Explaining why it is important to meet them during daylight, Moffet Mabelane, a corporate social responsibility manager at Xstrata Alloys, said managers were being targeted by angry community leaders.

“They want to influence the recruitment process. They demand that all available posts should be allocated to the locals. They say we should make broad-based black economic empowerment a reality and also demand that magoshi (local chiefs) refrain from employment and tendering processes,” said Mabelane.

A senior mine manager who refused to be identified said he was attacked at some point only to be rescued by ex-employees who happened to know him.

Mabelane said Xstrata had adopted 18 communities and about 38 schools . He said the company was addressing most of the concerns through a tripartite forum, consisting of representatives from the company, communities and trade unions.

He said the total commitment from Xstrata for community projects in the Lydenburg, Burgersfort and Steelpoort areas stood at R35m over the next few years. This includes projects in progress and those that will soon start.

He said the company employed more than 563 permanent staff and about 420 (75%) were locals. It will employ a further 1042 permanent staff when its current R4.9bn expansion programme is completed. “Of course as directly affected communities, they are our priority but at some point, we feel their demands are unfair. We need relevant skills and that is why we came up with this skills training facility to develop local skills.

“And sourcing skills from outside is something that is not sustainable,” Mabelane said.

But for Jerry Tshehlakgolo, chairperson of the Sekhukhune Land and Mining Community Based Forum, the mines were reneging on their promises.

“They are so reluctant. They undermine black communities. They keep on promising us this and that. They are not delivering.

“And because of that, those killings won’t stop, we will fight them,” he said.

Another community leader, Teddy Thobakgale, said the same pressure was applied to local municipalities.

“There is a divide and rule kind of attitude from local government officials. “They are treating us like rebels and we are prepared to do anything to vent our frustrations,” he said.

Communities’ frustrations were also discussed during a meeting organised by chief Mampuru Mampuru, of Ga-Mampuru.

“There is a serious tension all over here and something needs to be done,” said the chief.

The meeting was attended by about 150 people, most of whom were young unemployed.

“These operations must go now, they must just leave us with our poverty,” shouted a young man during the meeting.

He said as an unemployed young person who had completed matric years ago, he was looking at the mines in order to improve his living standard.

For many in these communities, the mining charter that envisages sustainable mining is a useless piece of paper.

Contacted for comment, African Rainbow Minerals said its engagements with communities were sensitive and that they were not in a position to divulge more information.