Housing must be made a priority at Marikana

In the wake of the Marikana tragedy there has been surprisingly little attention paid to the role of housing and basic service provision in the area. While the chief demand of miners is for higher salaries despite evidence that the current package of Marikana miners is above the median wage of the average employed South African living conditions reinforce the sense of impoverishment.

What is different from the past though is there is an element of choice — Lonmin offers hostel accommodation or an allowance which is often preferred by miners and used only partially for accommodation. Other expenses that take preference include the need to support families elsewhere and point to the first problem faced by municipalities such as Rustenburg where Marikana is situated — migrant labour.

Significant backlogs in housing and basic service provision are already plaguing Rustenburg and North West. Should the co-ordination and planning for housing and the provision of free basic services to mine employees not permanently residing in the municipality be expected especially when miners’ incomes place them outside the income bracket for RDP housing and free basic services?

The conundrum is complicated. Many miners reside with new or second families in informal settlements and these members of the community who are permanently resident in the area should be catered for. In addition the Chamber of Mines has argued that it has transferred funds to support development. Certainly the municipality pocketing rates from mining activities cannot shrug off responsibility for housing and services.

But is it realistic to assume that North West municipalities in mineral-rich areas are able to support mines’ social and welfare needs in addition to addressing substantial existing backlogs and infrastructure provision for their permanent residents? Is it justifiable for mining companies to fall back on allowances for individuals and development funds when backlogs in housing are clearly so big not only for miners but for the poorest?

Lonmin recognises that housing is a major risk estimating a North West backlog of 202000 houses with one third of the Bojanala Platinum district municipality residing in informal housing and half of the population in the settlements falling within a 15km radius of operations living in informal dwellings and lacking basic services. It has responded by building 1149 houses and converting 60 hostel blocks to single and family units in furtherance of a goal to build 5500 houses and convert 128 hostel blocks by 2014.

Critics have argued that for all Lonmin’s award-winning support of local health initiatives and clinics there are longer-term costs from mining especially in relation to the environment with the brunt being borne by communities.

But this may change. In a recent court ruling the North Gauteng High Court found that the liability for environmental degradation cannot be sold on to new owners. In 2003 Harmony Gold acquired all the shares in African Rainbow Minerals Gold which remained the owner of a property until January 2009 when ownership was transferred to Pamodzi. At this time Harmony informed the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs that is was no longer responsible for the management collection treatment use or disposal of subterranean water affecting current and future operations of mines.

The judgment however found that it was not only the current landholder who needed to undertake remediation but also those who failed to comply with previous directives. The description of a "clear causal and moral link" between mining and environmental impact is important — environmental degradation cannot be transferred with property rights.

These issues of liability fuel demands for the nationalisation of mining — the call is to match returns from mining with the costs that are often picked up by local communities be they social environmental or other. But in a better incentivised world mines would need to pick up the tab for their activities and this is a cost that few taxpayers would want to be saddled with if nationalisation were to go ahead.

As the National Development Plan has made clear the solution to many or our ills lies in a partnership between all players; in this case mines local communities miners and local government. If housing is so fundamental to a sense of wellbeing all stakeholders must treat it as a priority in this troubled area.