Fruit farming offers escape from South Africa's mining gloom

Fri Oct 11, 2013 6:26am EDT
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By Ed Stoddard

NOQHEKWANA, South Africa (Reuters) - Peter Somakhephu's life has followed a pattern familiar to many black South African miners: he exchanged a marginal existence of peasant farming in his home village for low-paid labor underground before being forced back onto the land.

His life has come full circle but he has broken the cycle of grinding subsistence by moving from staple crops for family consumption to small-scale fruit production for commercial sale, a business that was, until recently, far out of reach.

His example may hold promise for some of the tens of thousands of miners set to lose their jobs in coming years, a new wave of unemployment that will fuel tensions in the countryside and in the grim shanty-towns that ring the mines.

Anglo American Platinum's (Amplats) move to cut 3,300 jobs to restore profits sparked a 13 day-strike by miners desperate for work in a country where four out of ten adults, and more than half of the youth, have none.

It ended on Thursday after Amplats agreed to give the workers voluntary severance packages instead of laying them off.

This means they will get more compensation, though the amounts were not immediately specified. The company had already rowed back from a target of 14,000 jobs under pressure from the government and unions, underscoring the gravity of the issue.

The social consequences of mine job losses are widespread because the typical worker in the industry has eight dependants often in two separate families, one near the mines and the other back in their rural villages.

The African National Congress (ANC), in power for almost two decades, is likely to win next year's election, but more radical political forces are circling and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has called youth unemployment a "ticking time bomb".   Continued...

Former South African miner Elliot Belem stands among his orange trees in South Africa's Eastern Cape province October 10, 2013. REUTERS/Ed Stoddard