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Family Dwellings Rising Near Mines

South African firms hope to reduce the spread of infectious diseases and encourage a more stable work force by eliminating hostels.

October 27, 2002|Nicole Itano | Associated Press Writer

RUSTENBURG, South Africa — When Zydwell Sitofe's daughter spoke her first words, he was more than 600 miles away. Like most of South Africa's 300,000 gold and platinum miners, he works far from home and sees his family only once a year.

The miners live crowded together in squalid buildings -- without the joys of day-to-day family living -- under a system born of colonialism and perpetuated by apartheid. But that is changing for many men like Sitofe.

His wife and daughter are coming to join him in a new, pastel-colored house built by his employer, Lonmin Platinum, in an effort to stem the spread of AIDS and create a more stable work force by encouraging family living.

"I am so very happy.... Now we can live together as a family," said Sitofe, 28, who works at a mine in Rustenburg, about 60 miles west of Johannesburg.

Faced with post-apartheid laws that no longer favor migrant labor and with HIV infection rates estimated at 25% to 30% of their workers, many South African mining companies are working to replace crowded, all-male hostels with low-cost family housing.

Working with local governments, they are building houses, converting old hostels into family dwellings and offering stipends to miners who live off company property.

"The days when a company can decide how a man must live his life and how his family must live their life are long gone," said Willie Jacobsz, a spokesman for Gold Fields Ltd., South Africa's second-largest gold company, which has several pilot projects for family housing.

In an effort to provide cheap labor to mines, British colonial rulers, white South Africans and mining magnates developed the migrant labor system in the late 19th century. The racist, apartheid government that took power in 1948 turned that system into law.

Generations of poor black miners were forced to leave their families at home in rural areas or in neighboring countries. They lived in hostels, with as many as 16 jammed in a room. The hostels were dens of alcoholism, crime and prostitution, and experts say they spread AIDS, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

"If you consider the social setting in which hundreds of thousands of young men are removed from rural areas, living in single-sex hostels with easy access to sex workers and to alcohol, then you understand quite clearly one of the most important reasons for the spread of HIV," said Dr. Mark Lurie, an investigator for the South African Medical Research Council's migrant project.

Although the mining industry denies that the migrant labor system substantially contributed to the spread of AIDS, Lurie's research found migrant mine workers were 2 1/2 times more likely to be infected with HIV. Their wives, left at home to fend for themselves, also had higher than average infection rates.

The migration project estimates that converting mine hostels to family housing could reduce HIV transmission by as much as 40%.

Charles Kendall, human resources manager at Lonmin Platinum, says building family housing makes sense for the industry.

"The international trend in business is to focus on core businesses and to stop worrying about all these extras like housing," he said. "With AIDS, we realized that wasn't going to work. We were going to have to be more proactive and comprehensive in the way we looked at this problem."

Lonmin, praised for its housing policies, has already spent $5 million building more than 1,000 dwellings like the one Sitofe will share with his family.

An additional 2,000 are planned.

Although that will affect only a small percentage of the company's 16,000 regular mine workers, Kendall says it is a start.

Despite the positive changes, unions and AIDS researchers say few mines have made a real commitment to ending the hostel system.

"While the industry is starting to talk about 'Yes, this is important,' they're not saying, 'This is important, let's change it,' " said Moferefere Lekorotsoanoe, spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers. "Most of these mining houses, when you raise the issue, they make excuses and say this is a very costly exercise."

As some mining companies point out, building family housing is only part of the solution. Many miners like the freedom of living away from their families or want their families to stay in rural areas to keep a claim on traditional land. Additionally, many mine workers are foreigners who cannot bring their families under South African immigration laws.

Nevertheless, for men like Joseph Tlontlollo, a Lonmin miner who lives in a dark, dingy room with 12 other men, the possibility of bringing his wife to join him gives hope.

Six months ago, the hostel about 30 feet from Joseph's room looked like his. Now it has family units.

"I like them very much," Tlontlollo said, looking at the new pink building from the concrete stoop of his room. "I will be able to bring my family."

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