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Sitting in the widening circle of desperation

Increasingly frustrated, poverty -stricken ex-miners make up most of jobseekers at the Labour office PIC: ONALENNA KELEBILE
Each morning, hundreds of ex-BCL Mine workers trudge to the Selebi-Phikwe Labour office where they join their fellow former co-workers and other jobless citizens, sitting in the ever-widening circles of desperation, mulling over their shared misery. Mmegi Correspondent, ONALENNA KELEBEILE pays the circle a visit

SELEBI-PHIKWE: Before the closure of the mine in October 2016, they were the envy of town, their blue uniforms proudly emblazoned BCL Mine and marking them out as the cream of the crop in the copper and nickel mining town.

On their paydays, the plus 4,000 BCL Mine workers were a hit wherever in town they would be seen as their collective spending power of about P60 million regenerated businesses, excitement and activity every month.

Today, those who remained in the town make the heavy, heart-wrenching walk to the Selebi Phikwe Labour office where they sit in circles and trade tales of sorrow, reminisce about the mine’s glory days and share their frustrations.

No one is more special than the other at the Labour office. Everyone is equal, even if you pitch up with the once-proud BCL Mine-emblazoned overalls. Like everyone else, from the out-of-school youth, to the graduates, you pick a circle of your peers, sit in the sun and wait like everyone else.

As they sit and wait, the former miners bear the extra burden of the countless calls from banks and hire purchase retailers demanding their repayments. Many receive text messages informing them that they have been handed over to attorneys to handle the repayments. This is the new normal for them.

It is a cold but clear Friday at the district labour offices. More than 90% of the jobseekers here are clearly former miners. They sit in groups under trees and gaze at the office entrance with tired hope in their eyes. They keenly watch the main road for contractors who may come looking for labourers.

A stampede ensues whenever a vehicle enters the labour office premises, but it has been almost a month since this eagerly-awaited event happened. Despite that, the men still turn up every morning hoping against hope.

“Mma, we come here everyday and as we wait for any opportunity to come, we discuss survival skills and update each other on any employment opportunity that one of us may have heard of.

“We have become a family now such that if one makes a killing, he even assists others with a meal for the day and life goes on. Basadi ba ile because they are not strong enough to stand in these difficult times,” says one former miner.

One group of former miners has fashioned themselves chairs and a table of sorts, from where some are playing either mhele or cards, to pass the time. An adjacent group is engaged in deep discussions about life. From snippets of their conversation, the men appear to be saying they prefer being at the Labour Office than at home where they would spend the day staring at their ceilings searching for solutions to the harsh situations in their houses.

Many have run out of patience with the situation they are in.

“We have been patient enough with this government and we have reached a point where we want to show government that we want what is due to us. The rebellious countries were peaceful like Botswana but were pushed by circumstances like this one to become violent,” says one ex-miner.

Another says the only odd jobs available from the Labour office last only three days maximum. The last lucky few to secure employment were hired in mid-March.

Lazarus Keaboletse says the local authority told former miners to apply for social welfare, but even that has not helped.

“Only a few of us were lucky. The majority were rejected on the grounds that they were self-sustaining. “We have even been advised to sell our possessions to sustain our families. It is unfortunate that we

are assessed based on the possessions we amassed while we were still working,” Keaboletse says.

The miners say nothing will ever replace the economic impact taken away by the closure of BCL Mine. They say all of governments’ efforts are doomed to come to nought as the mine will always be the town’s only bedrock.

“The mine must be brought back to life. If this is difficult for government, then they should do the honourable thing and pay us our dues.

“This package should not just be a retrenchment package. It must be something that justifies the fact that some of us have toiled and laboured for over 20 years.

“It is painful that some former miners have killed themselves because of psychological pressures and if government does not intervene, such incidents will continue.

“I really wonder if government ever finds time to appreciate the devastation that the mine closure has caused.

There was never proper counselling nor any form of support to those affected by the abrupt closure,” a member of the mhele group says. The former miners reveal that not every jobless former employee is at the Labour office.“Some choose to confine themselves to houses, especially those who were our supervisors, because they are embarrassed to be seen to be hustling for piece jobs because they think we expect to have been earning more.

“Believe me these houses harbour pathetic situations. It is very painful,” said one disgruntled former miner.

Many at the Labour office feel the new President, Mokgweetsi Masisi owes them a miracle. Masisi visited Phikwe around the time of the closure and promised miners a ‘soft landing’, an expression that has been repeated frequently as a promise to help miners.

The former miners say instead of a soft landing, they have been dragged to courts by deputy sheriffs and other creditors, and are living in fear and poverty.

“We have been handed to the sheriffs who continuously call us despite the fact that we were made to write letters by the banks after losing jobs to explain that we are now unemployed and that we would continue servicing the loans when we secured jobs.

“But now we are arrogantly called day and night. We were also assured that our loans would not accumulate any interest, but as we speak my interest has reached P13,000 on top of the principal amount.  I have got no money to pay,” says another miner.

The fallout from BCL Mine’s closure extends far beyond the former miners and the labour office. A rising trend of child labour is emerging in the town as underage boys and girls walk long distances in search of piece jobs to be paid with a meal. Their parents are out of town searching for ways to make a living.

“I am looking for any job to do to be paid with anything that I can go and feed my siblings with at least for today. Our father long went and it is weeks now since our mother left to look for a job in another village,” one youngster relates.

Residents of Selebi Phikwe are now accustomed to random knocks at the door where a youngster will ask for a piece job, pleading for income to help their siblings.

Many of these children bear signs of extreme fatigue, indicating that they have been walking from house to house and working for a long period.

Social workers, meanwhile, report that some of the deserted teenagers are dropping out of school due to pregnancy. Without parental supervision, children have been left to fend for themselves, leaving them at the mercy of all types of hazards.





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