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Tough times for S.Africa town blighted by mine closure

It stands as a reminder of better times for the once booming mining town of Blyvooruitzicht, an hour’s drive southwest of Johannesburg.

Joseph Rammusa, 53, was proud to have been the club’s president — its last, because in 2013, the once-prosperous town suffered a dramatic reversal of fortune.

“I was called to come in the office, I was given a letter that needed to be printed urgently,” said Rammusa, a former clerk at the town’s mine.

“I started looking at the letter, I was taken aback. I realised that the mine was placed under provisional liquidation.”

For more than 60 years, Blyvooruitzicht sat on one of South Africa’s richest gold deposits.

But a diminishing return on investment prompted the owner to shut the mine, throwing all 1,700 workers out of a job — and leaving the site to looters and decay.

“Things started to fall apart,” said Rammusa.

– No redundancy pay –

The newly unemployed staff did not receive any redundancy pay because of a dispute between two mine operators — DRD Gold and Village Main Reef.

The town of 6,000 people was even threatened with the disconnection of its water and electricity supplies, which had both previously been paid for by the mining company.

Also left behind was an open-air mine dump, which now means that even the slightest breath of wind covers the town with a cloud of toxic dust.

Armed gangs also do battle to control the abandoned mine shafts, which they exploit illegally using casual untrained miners known locally as “zama zamas”.

Four years on from the mine’s closure and the situation in the town has deteriorated dramatically.

“We’re just struggling to get something to eat, to get water from the municipality. Same with electricity (and) we’re battling even to get our children to school,” said Elliot Matshoba, 51, a former safety officer at the mine.

– ‘Abandoned here’ –

The outlook for the environment is not much better — taps only run intermittently and sewage flows through the streets.

“We’re in a ‘no man’s land’. The government says there’s nothing it can do for us. It’s very painful because no one seems to care,” said residents’ spokesman Pule Molefe, 38.

“It’s like we are abandoned here. All we need is for the government to step in and take over and manage and protect what’s there.”

The town’s predicament is not uncommon in South Africa.

The ruinous and abrupt closures of mines, which have provided the majority of the country’s wealth, have increased in recent years as commodity prices have fluctuated unpredictably.

Michael Clements, from Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) which has investigated the impact of mine closure, said that “communities are simply left in a vacuum”.

“You have local government that is not able to step up into that role, particularly when there is a premature and sudden closure like in Blyvoor,” she said.

– Grimly holding out –

In 2015 and 2016, 40,000 people in the mining sector lost their jobs — one tenth of the industry’s total head count.

In Kroondal, near to the capital Pretoria, some 4,000 workers at a platinum mine were laid off following a strike. Because they did not agree to a deal signed by their union, they received no compensation.

For seven years, a hardcore of holdouts have occupied a building on the site of the Kroondal mine in the hope of securing a payout, with some 200 people living in abject squalor.

Tuberculosis is rife in the men’s sleeping quarters and many of them have contracted the disease.

“It is really a huge challenge because when it comes to food, everyone here is living on his own. We live on jackals, monkeys, cats — unless we get someone to assist us with food,” said the men’s representative, Elpideo Mutemba.

– ‘Criminally liable’ –

The mine owner, Sibanye Gold, is seeking an expulsion order to evict what it calls “squatters” — but until a decision is made it has continued to supply the site with electricity and water as a goodwill gesture.

The head of DRD Gold, Niel Pretorius, said that “it can’t be expected of corporations to fix what they didn’t break,” blaming the situation in Blyvoor on the trade unions that he accused of “irresponsible behaviour”.

The mining companies have long been considered untouchable because of their economic clout but three mine companies linked to Blyvoor are now the subject of a criminal lawsuit over their environmental records.

For the first time the state is participating in the action against them — and prosecutors have decided to take the case forward.

Mariette Liefferink, executive director at the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said the case could mean that mine directors are held criminally liable.

Joseph Rammusa, who is keenly awaiting the outcome of the case, is also holding onto the hope that there could be an unexpected future lying ahead.

“The company has started working to open the mine again,” said Rammusa. “Not everybody will be employed but at least those being employed will bring life in the village.”