The mine that stole Christmas


Polokwane – Depressed and fearful retrenched mine workers are returning their cars to the dealerships. Businesses are shutting down.

Rental accommodation units are under lock and key.

Taxis are standing idle with no passengers to carry.

Hawkers have put away their wares and goods.

A bleak festive season and uncertain future beckons.

There is fear, panic and depression in Atok, a once-vibrant little rural mining community in Limpopo.

On a good day, when mine workers from Bokoni Platinum got paid, food vendors like Constance Matheba could make up to R1 000 from their stalls along the R37 road.

But those good days, when life and business around the rural community relied on and revolved around the Bokoni Platinum Mine, are now in the cruel dustbin of history.

The mine, once the engine of the area’s economy and life in general, is now only partially operational.

Over 2 600 workers have been laid off since management announced it was placing the mine under care and maintenance until December 31 2019.

“It’s bad here. People are even taking their cars back to the dealerships. They can’t pay,” says Atwell Lesufi of the Atok Business Forum.

The forum incorporates 186 business entities including construction, mining, catering, hair salons, spazas, taxis and fast food outlets.

Lesufi says 98% of the business community in the area relied on Bokoni mine for their survival.

“All of our businesses have collapsed. We are not working at all. It’s just a lot of trouble. People still have some of the money they received as payout from the mine. But come January it will get worse. People are scared,” says Lesufi, who did construction work for the mine.

Bokoni Platinum Mine had, over the years since its establishment in the 1970s, transformed the rural community, which had previously relied hugely on subsistence farming and remittances from migrant workers, into a small, economically vibrant community.

Many of the working locals were employed on the mine, and scores of others had come from elsewhere to work at Bokoni.

In time, the R37 and the D4180, which cuts through the cluster of villages that make up Atok, became the area’s central business district boasting a string of businesses including car washes, stores, hair salons, hardwares, spaza shops and other types of small enterprises.

On weekends, the road vibrated to the sound of car stereos booming from car washes, taverns and the hooting of taxis ferrying commuters shopping.

But the heartbeat of the community is now silent. The spring in the community’s step is no more.

A depressing hush has fallen over the land, as if an old grandfather that once brought everyone sweets has died.

Car wash outlets, shisa nyamas and taverns that were often packed, vibrating to the merry voices of revellers and loud upbeat music, stand empty.

Rental residential complexes that housed migrant workers and were a lucrative source of income for locals, are under lock and key. The migrant workers have left.

Men like Kenneth Sithole, an assistant surveyor for 11 long years, spend the long sweltering days under the shade of what used to be a car wash, contemplating the future.

Although the news was announced in July, residents say they began to feel the full effect of the retrenchments at the end of October.

Those, like Kgotso Kupa, who are still in business are struggling to even pay the rent.

Kupa runs the Motsamai and Kgotso Hair Salon along the R37, which once roared with heavy traffic from trucks transporting minerals from the mine. Traffic on this part of the road has died down to a trickle too.

“In the past I could make R600 in a few days. Now sometimes I make only R50 a day,” says Kupa.

Kupa says that, when news of the retrenchments broke in July, there was a slight decline in business, yet they remained hopeful a solution could be found.

But since October, very few people drop in for a shave or a chiskop.

“Before then I could pay my rent [R500] way ahead of time. But now I struggle. I have even had to make a deal with my landlord to give me more time [to make enough to cover the rent]. I used to open at 10 in the morning on most days. But now I open later because when I think I might only make R50 that day I get disillusioned,” he says.

Next door Lefa Matabane is busy on his grinding machine, fashioning aluminium door and window frames in the workshop he rents for R3 500 a month.

“People no longer have cash,” says Matabane.

Previously, his clients, almost all of them who worked for Bokoni or companies contracted to the mine, would pay a cash deposit to place their orders and pay off the balance in cash instalments at the end of the month. Matabane says his business has declined by about 40%.

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