When workers of Kusasalethu mine, in Carletonville outside Johannesburg, began to return to work on New Year’s Day, they found the gates to the shaft locked, ‘until further notice’. Moreover, they were also locked out of the mine hostels, where about 3000 Kusasalethu workers, live, eat and access medical services. A group of workers who had remained in Carletonville over the festive break had been illegally evicted from their homes. As thousands of workers returned for work ahead of the January 3 opening date, the lock-out quickly developed into a humanitarian crisis. Fellow workers and community members have managed to sustain their comrades by collecting money and food stuff, cooking and bringing food to the workers, who are forced to sleep outdoors, at the height of summer rains.
However, on Wednesday January 9, the company closed off all access to the shaft premises where the workers are camped out and also cut off electricity and water. A few days earlier they also closed down the clinic, which many workers depend on for medication that has to be taken regularly. As a result, the health of the workers, already weakened by days without food, is now in serious jeopardy.
This morning one worker collapsed, said workers committee member Motaung on Wednesday. When the gates were closed he could not access his medication which has to be taken every hour. We had to call an ambulance. Another comrade collapsed this afternoon and was also taken to hospital.
Motaung also received an anonymous SMS on Wednesday, warning that workers inside the Kusasalethu premises should expect to “die there”. Workers and community members who had collected over R1200 and cooked for their comrades were refused to take the food inside to the starving workers, and the food had to be left to rot in the heat.
Harmony Gold’s callous attempts to starve the workers out were coupled by threats to close down Kusasalethu permanently. The company notified workers representatives of its intention to retrench the entire workforce of over 6000 unless they agreed to ten draconian conditions, including a prohibition of workers’ meetings and undertakings that there would be no strike or protest action at the mine.
Harmony Gold’s attempts to justify a closure of Kusasalethu, which would take away the livelihoods of at least 60 000 people, ring hollow. Management refers to losses and ‘disruption’ due to the workers’ participation in the massive mineworkers’ strike which followed the Marikana massacre last year, and, portraying workers as bloodthirsty thugs, to fears for ‘safety’.
Two workers were shot dead when the fulltime shop stewards of NUM (National Union of Mineworkers, the formerly militant, now rotten-to-the-core Cosatu/ANC affiliated union on which SA mineworkers have increasingly turned their backs in particular in the wake of Marikana) in November as workers were marching towards a mass meeting under the banner of their new union AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, a break-away from NUM that is absorbing most of the former NUM mineworkers). Bizarrely, a third worker who was shot in both legs but survived the attack has been charged with their murder.
Peacefully protesting workers have also repeatedly been attacked by police and private security guards at the mine. Last, five were injured when shot with live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas on December 20. This was after about 600 workers who were suspended for participating in an underground sit-in protest were refused access to their union office where they were to prepare for their disciplinary hearings the following day. Several underground occupations have taken place at Kusasalethu in protest against Harmony’s selective dismissal and victimisation of workers after the strike was ended on October 25, amongst other issues. The responsibility for pushing workers into continued mass action to fight for basic rights, as well as provoking and prolonging the main strike in the first place, lies with the Harmony management, which certainly is not taking a very peace-loving approach to the current stand-off.
The Kusasalethu mine turns out about 14 percent of the Harmony group’s total output, and generated a profit of R134 million just in the third quarter of 2012 – that was 18 percent of Harmony’s total profit in the period! Closing the mine, temporarily or permanently, clearly has nothing to do with the viability of operations, but is a price the mine bosses, clearly backed to the hilt by the Chamber of Mines and the ruling class as a whole, may be prepared to pay to set an intimidating example for SA’s combative mineworkers and the millions of workers in other industries who look towards them.
The attack on Kusasalethu workers is an attack on the whole movement of workers who last year took the decisive steps to claim their class independence and begin to rebuild their own fighting, accountable organisations. It demands a response from workers and working class communities and –organisations in SA and worldwide.
An urgently assembled National Workers Committee meeting held in Carletonville on January 9 agreed to organise a march involving all mines and working class townships in the area, as a first instalment in a programme of rolling mass action across the country. Workers of neighbouring mines and communities will also follow the example of the Kusasalethu township of Wedela and collect money and supplies in support of the workers. International solidarity and protests can have a real impact, and the Democratic Socialist Movement, SA affiliate of the Committee for a Workers’ International, appeals for email or sms protests to be sent to Harmony Gold as soon as possible.
Protest action needed
SMS to Harmony Gold’s Executive for Corporate and Investment Relations, Marian van der Walt on +27 82 888 12 42.
A model sms could read: “I/ We ... call on Harmony Gold to immediately cease its unlawful lock-out and eviction of Kusasalethu workers, re-open the mine and provide food and shelter for the workers. If you persist in your cruel punishment of the workers whose only crime is to stand up for decent wages and freedom of association you may soon have the lives of workers as an indelible stain on your reputation, as you are condemning workers to slowly starve and thirst to death. The world is watching your shameless game with people’s lives. [Signed]”
A model e-mail protest message could read:
“I/ We ....... call on Harmony Gold to immediately cease its unlawful lock-out and eviction of Kusasalethu workers, re-open the mine and mine hostels and provide food and health care for the workers. If you persist in your cruel punishment of the workers whose only crime is to stand up for decent wages, freedom of association and gathering, you may soon have the lives of yet more South African mineworkers as an indelible stain on your reputation, as you are condemning workers to slowly starve and thirst to death. Your claims of concern for workers’ safety are laughable in the circumstances. The world is watching your shameless game with people’s lives, and I/ we shall do my/our utmost to publicly protest at and shame your company.
Protests can also be arranged at Harmony Gold offices internationally, eg in England and Australia:
Harmony Gold Australia:
Level 2, 189 Coronation Drive
Milton, Queensland 4064
Tel: +61 7 3320 3700
Fax: +61 7 3320 3740
St James’s Corporate Services Limited
6 St James’s Place
London SW1A 1NP
Support the South African mineworkers:
Any donations for the struggle are welcome. The strike committees need, in addition to organising for the defence of the Kusasalethu comrades, now also to assist with fundamental solidarity such as food aid.
Deposits can be made into the account below - Rustenburg Joint Strike Coordinating Committee, Bank: Standard Bank, South Africa Account: Workers Defence Fund, Account No. 300495986 Branch: East Gate, Branch Code: 018 505 Swift Code: SBZAZAJJ