Miners dig amid uncertainty

2012-07-01 13:47

Johannesburg - The scaling down of operations at a platinum mine in North West has brought instability to the lives of its labourers and uncertainty in the local economy of the community where it is based.

When City Press this week visited Rustenburg’s platinum belt, most of the workers of Marikana 4 Shaft said the reduction of the mine’s operations has cast a veil of uncertainty over their lives.

While some workers have been transferred to other mines, others have been left without jobs.

Sechaba Mojalefa, a 35 year-old married father of three is one of the unfortunate labourers who are without a job.

“My livelihood is threatened because I have not received a letter of transfer,” he says.

The Lesotho national, who was employed as a supervisor, has been working at the mine since 2006.

“If they can give me a transfer, I will be happy because I have bills to pay. I have to buy groceries for my family, pay insurance policies and transport that takes my children to school,” says Mojalefa during an interview with City Press at his house in a sprawling informal settlement of Kroondal.

The Marikana 4 Shaft mine is a 50/50 joint operation between London-listed Anglo Platinum [JSE:AMS] and JSE-listed Aquarius Platinum [JSE:AQP].

Most of the labourers stopped working on June 22.

Mojalefa’s plight comes at a time when the platinum mining industry is going through a bad spell due to rising production costs, plunging prices and high transport costs due to a long distance between the mines and major markets.

Industry surveys indicate that between 40% and 50% of all platinum production is sold at a loss.

The platinum price plunged to lows of $1 402 an ounce from the pre-recession price of $2 000 an once.

Platinum producers say the ideal price for platinum would be $1 900.

This price level, they say, will enable them to keep mines running profitably, resulting in employment retention.

The main market for South African platinum is Europe. Due to the eurozone’s gloomy economic outlook, and slowing demand from the embattled continent, many mines have adjusted their operational plans to cushion themselves in the event of the market weakening further.

The protracted European crisis and the contraction in Chinese economic output is causing a weakness in demand and stockpiles of platinum remain unsold.

This has led to an imbalance in the platinum market in which there is an oversupply.

As South Africa produces more than 80% of the world’s platinum, the country’s industry is vulnerable to wobbles in the eurozone.

In a media statement, Aquarius says it and Anglo Platinum have reached an agreement to put the mine operations on care and maintenance due to the falling platinum-group metals prices.

“This decision has been made in the interests of preserving the (company’s) ore reserves until an improved economic climate ­merits their extraction in the future,” the statement reads.

“As a result, Marikana 4 Shaft and the Marikana concentrator plant will be placed on care and maintenance.

“The remaining management functions at (the company’s Marikana mining operation) will be consolidated with those of (the company’s mining operation) at Kroondal. Preparations for these events have been initiated, and the required consultative processes will commence today,” the statement reads.

Mojalefa says: “If things do not work out here at the mine, I will look for a job elsewhere. But I’m a bit anxious about finding a new job because the platinum mining sector is not performing very well.”

Steven Rankoe, a mine supervisor from Bloemfontein, is upbeat despite the scaling down.

Unlike Mojalefa, Rankoe is in a fortunate situation because he has secured a transfer to another mine.

“To be honest, I don’t have stress about the closure of the mine and I don’t mind relocating to another province,” says Rankoe, who will relocate to Mpumalanga.

“I am young, experienced and I believe I won’t struggle to find a job elsewhere,” says the 35-year-old childless bachelor.

Spaza shop owner Brenda Sithole says she was worried about her small business because most of her customers were mine workers from the Marikana 4 Shaft.

“The future of my business looks bleak because most of my customers work there,” she says.

Mine workers John Thabethe and Bongwe Thomas are also unimpressed about the scaling down.

Thabethe says: “The mine has not given me a letter of transfer and I don’t know how I will survive.”

On the other hand, Thomas says: “I am unhappy about the transfer because I’m unfamiliar with Khutsong (Gauteng).”