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BOTSWANA: Retrenchments Turn Villages Into “Little Hells”

Ephraim Nsingo

GABORONE, Mar 16 2009 (IPS) - The closure of two major mines and the scaling down of operations at most mines in Botswana have had a knock-on effect beyond miners in this southern African producer of diamonds.

When times were still good, many mine workers hired people to do chores at their homes. But this appears to have come to an end. Informal traders also struggle to sell their goods and social tensions rise as more people lose their jobs.

“Everyone is affected now. It’s not about mine employees alone. Everyone around us is also feeling the pinch,” laments Christian Motsamai*, who worked as a plant operator at Orapa Mine No. 2 Plant.

“Most of us had our own employees who took care of things at home while we were at work. For example, I had two maids: one who looked after our baby and another who took care of the house. I also had two herd boys to look after my cattle. With current developments at the mine, I cannot afford to keep them. What will I give them?”

Since the announcement by diamond mining giant Debswana that it is shutting down Orapa Mine No. 2 Plant and Damtshaa Mine until the end of the year and scaling down operations at most of its mines, mine workers have found themselves in the doldrums. The two mines are between 220 and 240 km west of Francistown in northern Botswana.

Other workers not directly employed by the company have also been affected, as the company immediately cancelled labour hire contracts, affecting close to 1,000 employees.

“The numbers are much greater than that. Most of the workers are engaged on a short term basis and their details are not included in most of the official correspondence.

“The situation appears to be getting worse. I doubt if we will once again experience the good days when one would look forward to the 19th of the month, our pay day,” notes Motsamai, who is also a member of the workers’ union for Orapa Mine.

With frustration written all over his face, Motsamai explains that “if the struggles we have seen in just these few months are anything to go by, then we are in for a really tough time.

“This has never happened in the history of this mine. Everyone is just lost and we do not know what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month. We do not know what the future holds for us. This place never used to be like this (that is, quiet),” he adds.

Ordinary people from villages surrounding mines are also feeling the pinch. At Rakops, a village near Letlhakane Mine, Kaone Nare tells IPS that after the farming season most villagers would seek short term employment as “dikonteraka”, as labour hire contractors are known among locals. Letlhakane is 190 km west of Francistown.

“This had become part of our life — that whenever we are not working in the fields, we go and work at the mines. We would come back to the village during the farming season to prepare the fields and then go back to the mine.

“We got all the money for our agricultural inputs from the piece jobs at the mine but now nothing is coming up. We hear all contractors have been removed,” says the concerned Nare.

The sudden upsurge in the number of unemployed people in the area has led to growing tension. “Most small business operators have become very hostile to their workers because they know if they fire you, there’s nowhere to go. This place is slowly turning into a little hell,” adds Nare.

Small businesses have also been affected. Tshepo Baitsile, who sells fruit, vegetables and small foodstuffs, complains that, “the past three months have been very bad for me. I have lost quite a significant chunk of my wares over the last few weeks as they just rot with no one buying. It’s a really challenging situation. I still have not paid my rent.

“I took some of the goods I sell on credit, hoping to settle the debt with the profits, but I have been running at a loss. I don’t know how we are going to get out of here – maybe by the grace of god,” hopes Baitsile.

According to Jack Tlhagale, secretary general of the Botswana Mine Workers Union (BMWU), workers’ representatives and Debswana management are engaged in meetings to find ways of cushioning ordinary employees.

But some workers have already packed their goods and left the mines before the talks being held by the joint negotiation and consultative committee (JNCC) have been concluded.

“We are urging the workers not to go away as they have still not been served with retrenchment and redeployment notices. We have an agreement in place with Debswana on exit packages and we hope that it will be followed,” Tlhagale adds.

The workers will have to keep their fingers crossed a little longer – until Mar 17 when the JNCC is expected to meet again.

*Not his real name

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