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”.
Resentment runs deep. Somakhephu, an ex-platinum miner, says the fruits of his labor owe nothing to the industry, which has not lived up to public expectations for a wider redistribution of wealth since white minority rule ended in 1994.
“I built these from farming, not from mining,” said Somakhephu, a sprightly 61-year-old, as he gestured to the set of five small but sturdy houses that crown his rural homestead in the rugged hills of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.
Behind him to the east neat rows of orange trees sloped to the valley floor, to the west stood lush banana plants.
Somakhephu’s neighbor Elliot Belem, 56, standing among his orange trees, said farming his 2.5 hectare plot was better than life in the gold mines, where he was a first-aid worker.
“It’s better to be a farmer than a miner. I have no supervisor, I am self-employed,” he said.
They are part of a project that has seen 5,200 households plant more than 110,000 crop trees since 1999, according to South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council, a state agency, and Is‘Baya Development Trust, the NGO behind the initiative.
The project, which has received no funding from the mining industry, aims ultimately to form co-ops to help with marketing and distribution in a sector still dominated by white commercial farmers whose industrial-scale operations have made South Africa the world’s second-largest citrus exporter after Spain.
Commercial farming, even on a small scale, was not an option before for people like Somakhephu in this rural backwater once known as the Transkei, one of the quasi-independent “homelands” which provided mines with a cheap source of migrant labor.
The Is‘Baya project has not only given black farmers and would-be farmers training in the care of citrus but also the trees themselves, unobtainable in the past, when apartheid restrictions kept black South Africans from markets and capital.
“I went back to farming when I had to leave the mines in 1985 but I had no equipment and did not know how to get the trees,” said Belem.
Mining firms say they are putting resources and retraining into what are now called “labor sending areas”, though not in this remote village, which has also been neglected by the state.
Perched near jagged cliffs overlooking South Africa’s “Wild Coast,” Noqhekwana has no electricity or running water and lies at the end of a rough dirt track.
Amplats has pledged “retraining and job-seeker” support for laid-off workers in such areas but has not given details.
Rival Lonmin said it offers skills training in farming for workers close to retirement or facing layoff in recognition of the rural backgrounds of much of its workforce.
Still, there are limits to what the land can sustain. The loss of tens of thousands of jobs from the gold mining sector in 1994 to 2004, coupled with a 40 percent increase in the population, means it is already eroded and overgrazed.
“Land erosion and deterioration ... are already seen as results of this newly induced population pressure,” researchers noted in a 2004 study in the Journal of the South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.
The new wave of job losses comes as South Africa’s gold industry, which has produced a third of the bullion ever mined, faces growing cost pressures and depressed metal prices in the world’s deepest mines.
About half of the country’s platinum mines are also losing money at current prices.
The migrant labor force is now partly their undoing as the low skills of a semi-literate workforce constrain productivity while income disparities fuel labor unrest. Dozens of people have been killed in the past 20 months in a turf war between the ANC-allied National Union of Mineworkers and rapidly growing Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
Impala Platinum (Implats) has said part of its focus has been on raising the literacy levels of its labor force, a trend which can help lift its own productivity and give former miners more of a chance outside of the shafts.
In its latest annual report, Implats says 80 percent of its workforce had basic levels of adult literacy in 2013, over double the 30 percent recorded in 2008.
The fledgling fruit farmers still face many obstacles - not least a perception in the region that agriculture here is still largely a peasant and not commercial activity, unlike in other regions, where white farmers predominate.
In the town of Lusikisiki, about 50 kms (30 miles) from Somakhephu’s groves, Monica Nduli, a middle-aged woman selling fruit on the roadside, said she sourced her produce from KwaZulu-Natal, 150 km (90 miles) away.
“In Transkei? Never! It’s only in KwaZulu-Natal that we get such fruit,” she told Reuters.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher