'This is how they pay us - with bullets," Nchakha Jankie utters in disbelief, as he holds a freshly fired rubber bullet in his palm, one of dozens that police had just pumped into an angry crowd of thousands of protesting miners.
Jankie, a 46-year-old mineworker at the bankrupt Grootvlei mine in Springs, which is run by the controversial empowerment firm, Aurora Empowerment Systems, is stunned at this violent turn of events. "We get shot at for the money we're owed for two months. I don't know what to do now," he said, shrugging disconsolately.
More than 2 000 of Grootvlei's mineworkers, who downed tools last month in protest against the non-payment of their wages and the spectre of retrenchments, were calling this week for the heads of Aurora's managing director, Zondwa Mandela, a grandson of Nelson Mandela, and President Jacob Zuma's nephew, Khulubuse Zuma, the chairman, who took over Grootvlei last October. Zuma's lawyer, Michael Hulley, sits on the company's board.
Hungry and amid growing anger, the frustration of the mineworkers, who have led peaceful protests until now, is palpable. This week they were threatening to raze the mine's offices.
On Wednesday, they encircled the entrance to the mine's offices, trapping inside management, who watched in shock as some hurled rocks in their direction. Heavily armed police escorted managers from the premises, who then sped off in a convoy of luxury vehicles, as they were pelted with rocks. Five mineworkers were later hospitalised for injuries they sustained from the rubber bullets.
"You should have killed me because I'm dead already," shouted a worker to the dispassionate police officers as he showed them his bloody bullet wounds. "My wife has left me now and my children are gone. It's better if I die. I have nothing."
In recent weeks, Mandela and his colleagues have made unfulfilled public pledges to pay their employees, insisting they would be paid by the Easter weekend. In February, the workers were paid only a portion of their salary.
For Elphus Mabundha, this amounted to little more than R300. His wife and three children have nothing to eat, and he lives in the mine hostel, which has had its electricity, water and food supplies cut because it is in arrears. The mine is reportedly in debt to the tune of R100 million.
Mabundha is surviving on handouts from relatives, but those are running dry. "If they want to close the mine, no problem. I'll hopefully find another job. But we need our money for our children," he said, worriedly.
Fists raised, Lazarus Mokoena shouted angrily: "They're not giving me my money for mahala. This is not a loan. I've worked for it for two months. They take our money and they keep it in their pockets and then the police shoot us - not them."
Again, the company pledged that by Thursday miners would be paid their outstanding wages, but protests continued, as this did not materialise. Spokesman Fazel Bhana claimed the mine would be back up and running on Monday. "We'll have a few shafts running and... go from there. Let bygones be bygones. The truth is no one benefits from this. We're losing if the mine is at a standstill and they're losing their salaries. The mine is spending R30m a month and production is at an all-time low."
But a source close to the mine responded sceptically: "If they haven't managed to make the mine run and pay workers on the gold they've mined in the past, how, miraculously, will they do that on gold they mine next week?"
Grootvlei is already under fire from local residents and environmental groups for discharging 108 megalitres of untreated acid mine water into the Blesbokspruit, a designated Ramsar Convention Wetland of International Importance, which flows through the Marievale Bird Sanctuary, and ultimately into the Vaal River, for more than two months.
One megalitre - or million litres - is equivalent to 20 suburban swimming pools, according to experts.
The Saturday Star saw how the mine's treatment plants were standing idle, while the water it was pumping from underground was blood red from levels of iron sulphide. Staff who continue to man the pump station have also gone without salaries for several months. They spoke of their duty to prevent a "catastrophe" that would see Springs and the greater East Rand collapse.
But Bhana further claimed it had been treating the water with lime until it ran out this week. "If Aurora doesn't pump, the Blesbokspruit will be lost and the East Rand will flood... The workers blockaded the pumping stations and we couldn't get there to treat the water."
This claim was promptly rubbished by internal sources who maintained that the protesters had never blocked the pumping station.
Meanwhile, water expert Professor Anthony Turton said it appeared as if the empowerment firm had no financial capacity to deal with the environmental problem.
"If this assessment is correct, we could be seeing an acceleration of the decant potential as that mining operation fails. There are some big-name political families as major equity holders in this new venture, so it will be interesting to see if the government acts against people with such political pedigrees."
Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said the government was failing to take Aurora to task. "The fact is the guardians of our environment and water are not taking action as they are mandated to. Not only are they (Aurora) not adding lime, they're not adding flocculant and aerating the water... That mine void water contains all heavy metals and then it's discharged unprecipitated into the Blesbokspruit. Radioactivity is also a concern."
But Nigel Adams, the national director of the Blue Scorpions, said the unit was now determining whether to follow administrative or criminal action against Aurora. "We're still in the investigative phase of this whole complaint. We're not involved in politics at all. We view transgressors in terms of the National Water Act and will deal with (transgressors) accordingly."
The Blue Scorpions had taken two batches of water samples, he said, which had shown the sulphate levels from the mine outlet exceeded the recommended operational limits. Its report shows how the contaminated water is being pumped out of the mine shaft into a purification plant and being discharged into the Blesbokspruit untreated.
Liefferink added it was in "Aurora's corporate character" not to honour its promises. "We call these type of miners scavenger miners - they just come in to scavenge the last remaining gold and don't address any of the impacts."
hat tip: black coffee