6 November 2015
A gyrocopter overflying the embattled MSR Tormin mine near the remote West Coast town of Vredendal was shot at last month, according to a witness who reported the alleged incident to the local police.
And the witness told amaBhungane that the bodyguards of Tormin general manager Gary Thompson opened fire on Thompson’s instructions.
If it is true, the allegation suggests a siege mentality at the dune mining operation, owned by the Australian company that is also at the centre of the long-running battle over planned dune mining at Xolobeni on the Wild Coast.
Weeks of labour turmoil at the mine on the arid coast 400km north of Cape Town started when workers launched a five-week strike on September 4. Tormin hit back with a lockout coupled with its own conditions for a return to work.
Police allegedly fired teargas during a protest by strikers outside the mine and arrested 27. After the return to work, 25 were suspended on charges including “participating in actions detrimental to the interests of the employer” and “badmouthing the company”.
Some workers then marched on Tormin to present a memorandum of demands including Thompson’s “immediate dismissal” – but say no one emerged to accept it.
Four armed security guards stand at Tormin’s entrance. When during an unscheduled visit last week an amaBhungane reporter asked to speak to management, they turned her away.
Asked about workers’ allegations against Tormin, the company’s PR consultant, Anne Dunn, described them as “incorrect and groundless. Tormin does not wish to debate this issue in the media and will not be providing comment.”
Township at Lutzville on the West Coast. Photo by Masixole Feni.
Responding to a specific question this week about the shooting claim, Dunn said Tormin did not wish to comment.
The witness, a mine employee who asked not to be named, said the shooting happened at around 1pm on October 14.
“A helicopter (sic) was flying over the mine and Gary went outside with two of his bodyguards. Next thing he shouted at the bodyguards to fire at it.
“Two shots were fired, but they missed and the helicopter flew off. Then they went back to the plant and acted as if nothing had happened.”
The witness said she reported the incident to the police on the same day, “but till today I have heard nothing”.
She said she had received a formal letter from the mine calling her to a disciplinary hearing, which she believes relates to an email she sent about the shooting incident. “I did indeed send an email that day to my husband informing him of what happened,” she said.
The letter, which amaBbungane has seen, states that “the purpose of the hearing will be to determine whether you are guilty of … disclosure of confidential information to unauthorised persons through email; in the alternative, any conduct which affects the employee relationship adversely”.
Western Cape police spokesman Frederick Van Wyk confirmed that a gyrocopter had flown over the mine and an allegation of shooting was under investigation. No arrests had been made. Although mining of zircon and other minerals started in early 2013, Tormin was officially launched last year ago at a ceremony attended by mineral resources minister Susan Shabangu. An upbeat Shabangu welcomed the investment and “the demonstration of sustained confidence in the South African mining industry”.
But the optimism has soured. Workers interviewed last week were seething with resentment against the company and accused Thompson – who took over in mid-2014– of unfair dismissals, racism and “oppression” of employees.
They said that the legal strike, involving many of the 250-strong workforce, was triggered by wage cuts without notice.
A suspended plant operator, who did not want to be named, said: “The cuts were done in three consecutive months, June, July and August. I was earning R26.75 an hour, which was reduced to R26.50. Bear in mind that you only get paid for the hours you work.”
At the air-conditioned municipal offices in scorching Vredendal, amaBhungane attended a meeting of suspended miners, NUM members, a ward councillor, the local taxi association, community members and the ANC Youth League.
A Tormin employee said he started working at the mine in 2013 and does a 12-hour shift.
“Everything was going good before the current people took over. We’re mistreated at the mine. The general manager, who is 68, swears at us and makes sexual comments to women employees. Accidents with transport at the plant are not reported or investigated.
“Gary is not afraid to tell us that if you go inside the mine gates, you’re in Australia and if you leave then you’re in South Africa. The high-paying positions depend on who you are and how you look.
“I’ve heard him say that if you’re a baboon you’ll get a job at the plant. Some people don’t even have grade 10 but are made supervisors.”
A community activist and small farmer from nearby Lutzville, Davine Witbooi, leads us through the dusty sand roads to her shack in Mbeki Square. There she tells us of residents’s fear about taking on mine management. “People are scared of Gary Thompson and they want him to go back to Australia,” she said.
Workers claim their appearance outside the Cape High Court on October 9, in an effort to speak to MSR boss Mark Caruso, underlies some of the suspensions.
This is as close as we could get to photographing the Tormin mine. On one of GroundUp’s visits to the mine, our reporter was escorted off the property by mine security. Photo by Juliette Garms.
The case was brought by Tormin’s former chief executive Andrew Lashbrooke, who claimed his company lent MSR money in exchange for the exclusive supply of minerals from the mine. His application was dismissed.
According to the quarterly activities report of Tormin’s parent company, Mineral Commodities, for the period ended September 30 the National Union of Mineworkers “received recognition amongst the Tormin workforce [in July 2015] and subsequently made a series of unrealistic demands”.
It said talks deadlocked and the strike erupted after the company offered an effective 33% pay rise.
The report says “a core group of non-union members continued to report for work and support the company’s mining processing operations … The majority of workers, union and non-union, had returned to work by the end of September accepting the company’s employment conditions and terms.”
But Dick Forslund, senior economist at the Cape Town-based Alternative Information and Development Centre, said that after seeing company’s return-to-work conditions he advised the Vredendal NUM “that the agreement was unlawful and does not bind them”.
Forslund said the agreement involved multiple violations of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. One of the workers’ demands is that Tormin “respect South African legislation”. The principal breach, Forslund said, was in relation to a 4x4x4 shift system – four 11-hour day shifts, followed by four night shifts, followed by four rest days.
This amounted to about 220 hours per month over every even number of months, a 25-hour increase over the previous contract and more than the 189 hours set as the upper limit by the legislation.
He added that the Act stipulated a maximum of five hours overtime a week, while Tormin workers had worked an average of 7.3 hours over a two-month period.
Meanwhile, the company has announced that it has started work on a R2-million resource centre at the local Koekenaap School that will be handed over in January next year. It quoted the school principal, Eddie Cloete, as saying: “We are so excited that this building is about to start. We could not have done this without MSR”.
Mary-Anne Gontsana is a GroundUp reporter currently doing a three month internship at AmaBhungane, the Mail & Guardian’s investigative reporting centre.
This article was based on a joint investigation by amaBhungane and GroundUp. It is also published in today’s Mail & Guardian.