Sad farewell to the legendary ndorondoro

It is not only death that stirs up pain and creates a void in someone’s heart. Any emotional attachment evokes the same feelings when the time to part ways arrives. Staff Writer, ONALENNA MODIKWA KELEBEILE notes such emotions astir in the copper and nickel mining town of Selebi Phikwe

The era of the ndorondoro has come to an end. The articulated buses – notable for their horse and uplifted trailer – were a daily sight on local roads here for decades and had become part of the town’s daily lifestyle.

For many years, these buses were the sole mode of transport for BCL Mine employees and were a near constant sight in the dusty terrains of Botshabelo, Western Area, Phase I as well as along Sefhophe road on their way to Selebi shaft.

Their sing-song name originated from the fertile imagination of young children who heard the rumbling engines as a repetitive sound best captured by the onomatopoeic word ‘ndorondoro’. Due to their extensive use in mining regionally, ndorondoros are historically associated with mining and the arrival of dusty men from the mines to their wives and children.

While the bus’ history in Selebi Phikwe began in the years after BCL Mine’s commissioning, the ndorondoros gained full notoriety when prominent bus operator, TJ Motlogelwa, was awarded a contract to purchase and operate the personnel trailers in 2003. In that year, BCL outsourced its transport services, but bound TJ Motlogelwa to purchasing the existing fleet and hiring BCL employees as drivers.

For the young ones, the sound of the legendary bus would signify the delightful fact that ‘Papa’ was on his way home. Like cattle being offloaded from a trailer, the miners would alight from the buses in a single file, each clutching a green meal bag nicknamed chola.

A veteran BCL miner recalls the prestige surrounding the ndorondoro and its passengers, especially in those early years.

“I joined the mine when the buses were the mode of transport and it was a privilege for a man employed by the mine to be seen waiting to be picked at the stop.

“You became an envy to those who were unemployed. It was also an honour to have your wife wait with you by the stop. When you arrived home, children would run to snatch the chola bag from you knowing that there would be a brown loaf of bread inside.”

The sound of the ndorondoro, however, also signalled the sad inevitability that ‘Papa’ was returning to work.

The ndorondoro’s ungainly built, its military colour and the way the miners would lump its sole entrance whenever it stopped at a pick up station, gave one the feeling that mining is not for sissies.

Within the buses, talks would drift from sports, politics, work, work politics and latest developments in the town, as the miners formed lifelong camaraderie and bonds.

Within the town’s narrow roads, motorists had slowly learnt to coexist with the ndorondoros over the years. Stubbornness was futile as the ndorondoro’s sheer size meant other motorists would have no choice but to make way for the horse and trailer as they navigated their way along the narrow roads.

Time has taken its toll on the illustrious ndorondoros, however, and in their latter years, the buses have become a bit inefficient, developing technical problems and picking workers later.

In addition, many have become a health and safety hazard, resulting in fewer and fewer of them operating, as more enter salvage yard retirement. Matters came to a head when local councillors expressed concerns over the state of the ndorondoros, saying they posed a serious hazard to employees.  The Selebi Phikwe Town Council subsequently tabled a motion to the effect that BCL should do something to improve its staff transport.

And with that, the days of the ndorondoro were numbered.

Last week, the era of the ndorondoro officially came to an end when BCL Mine engaged AT&T Monnakgotla as the new transport provider, an occasion that saw the unveiling of a fleet of 10 shiny Scania ‘Marco Polo’ buses.

The tender was floated last year and awarded this year, with the contract period beginning on March 1.

The new buses are already on the road and have caught the attention of Selebi Phikweans, as they saunter down the streets, emblazoned with BCL brands and insignia. The era of the ndorondoro has indeed ended.

“E na le madi hle BCL. E kgona go reka dibus tse di kana esa…,” Phikweans have been heard saying in awe, unaware that the mine does not own the fleet. The mine’s spokesman, James Molosankwe says the latest developments are part of a “continuous effort to improve the welfare of employees”.  “We were looking at efficiency, timeliness and safety because we are a continuous operation,” he explains.

“In the past, we have received calls from various quarters in the community with regard to the transport situation and we have responded accordingly to reassure the community that staff welfare comes first.”

The new fleet has been distributed across the mineshafts, especially to the more remote ones such as Selebi, which is located 15 kilometres out of town, as well as Phikwe Central, and Selebi North. The ‘next-generation ndorondoros’ also cover the night shifts for Phikwe Central and the metal production team.

For TJ Motlogelwa, the original operator of the ndorondoro, the end of an era has come with mixed feelings.

Having tendered and lost, the company’s managing director, Tshesebe Motlogelwa, says there is presently no plan on what to do with the personnel trailers.

“Re tla di batela ditiro,” he says.

According to Motlogelwa, they bought and operated the trailers from the mine and it was an easy takeover given the company’s experience in the bus operations.

However, the era with the ndorondoros was not all rosy.

“Some of the ndorondoros were bought by the mine in 1979 and the last were bought in 2000.

“The contract was for three years and that was followed by 12 month extensions until this year.

“The challenge was that we purchased an old fleet from the mine and buying new ones was a challenge because we could not pop out the money from our pockets and banks could not assist us when our extensions were limited to 12 months.” He adds: “We were not making any profits because all the money was spent on maintenance as we strived to adhere to safety standards.  I made an effort to negotiate for a three-year contract with the mine, but failed.

“I then saw an invitation for tender in the media without prior communication with me despite the fact that I only had had a meeting with the mine’s manager a month before.”

The mine, meanwhile, says it is thankful for the years of faithful service provided by TJ Motlogelwa and the ndorondoros.

“Our relations with TJ Motlogelwa were mutual and beneficial and that is why it ran for the duration it did.  We thank TJ Motlogelwa for having provided that service, even during difficult economic times,” says Molosankwe.

The children of Selebi Phikwe have a new friend on the streets, albeit a quieter, sleeker one, for whom a nickname will, no doubt, soon be found.

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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