Fruit farming offers escape from South Africa's mining gloom

Reuters

* Many S.Africa miners may return to the land

* Cost, price pressure stokes tension in mining

* Former subsistence farmers grow fruit for sale

* Fruit success story may offer path for some ex-miners

By Ed Stoddard

NOQHEKWANA, South Africa, Oct 11 (Reuters) - PeterSomakhephu's life has followed a pattern familiar to many blackSouth African miners: he exchanged a marginal existence ofpeasant farming in his home village for low-paid labourunderground before being forced back onto the land.

His life has come full circle but he has broken the cycle ofgrinding subsistence by moving from staple crops for familyconsumption 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 ofthousands of miners set to lose their jobs in coming years, anew wave of unemployment that will fuel tensions in thecountryside and in the grim shanty-towns that ring the mines.

Anglo American Platinum's (Amplats) move to cut3,300 jobs to restore profits sparked a 13 day-strike by minersdesperate 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 theworkers voluntary severance packages instead of laying them off.

This means they will get more compensation, though theamounts were not immediately specified. The company had alreadyrowed back from a target of 14,000 jobs under pressure from thegovernment and unions, underscoring the gravity of the issue.

The social consequences of mine job losses are widespreadbecause the typical worker in the industry has eight dependantsoften in two separate families, one near the mines and the otherback in their rural villages.

The African National Congress (ANC), in power for almost twodecades, is likely to win next year's election, but more radicalpolitical forces are circling and Deputy President KgalemaMotlanthe has called youth unemployment a "ticking time bomb".

Resentment runs deep. Somakhephu, an ex-platinum miner, saysthe fruits of his labour owe nothing to the industry, which hasnot lived up to public expectations for a wider redistributionof wealth since white minority rule ended in 1994.

"I built these from farming, not from mining," saidSomakhephu, a sprightly 61-year-old, as he gestured to the setof five small but sturdy houses that crown his rural homesteadin the rugged hills of South Africa's Eastern Cape province.

Behind him to the east neat rows of orange trees sloped tothe valley floor, to the west stood lush banana plants.

Somakhephu's neighbour Elliot Belem, 56, standing among hisorange trees, said farming his 2.5 hectare plot was better thanlife in the gold mines, where he was a first-aid worker.

"It's better to be a farmer than a miner. I have nosupervisor, I am self-employed," he said.

They are part of a project that has seen 5,200 householdsplant more than 110,000 crop trees since 1999, according toSouth 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 miningindustry, aims ultimately to form co-ops to help with marketingand distribution in a sector still dominated by white commercialfarmers whose industrial-scale operations have made South Africathe world's second-largest citrus exporter after Spain.

LABOUR RESERVES

Commercial farming, even on a small scale, was not an optionbefore for people like Somakhephu in this rural backwater onceknown as the Transkei, one of the quasi-independent "homelands"which provided mines with a cheap source of migrant labour.

The Is'Baya project has not only given black farmers andwould-be farmers training in the care of citrus but also thetrees themselves, unobtainable in the past, when apartheidrestrictions kept black South Africans from markets and capital.

"I went back to farming when I had to leave the mines in1985 but I had no equipment and did not know how to get thetrees," said Belem.

Mining firms say they are putting resources and retraininginto what are now called "labour sending areas", though not inthis remote village, which has also been neglected by the state.

Perched near jagged cliffs overlooking South Africa's "WildCoast," Noqhekwana has no electricity or running water and liesat the end of a rough dirt track.

Amplats has pledged "retraining and job-seeker" support forlaid-off workers in such areas but has not given details.

Rival Lonmin said it offers skills training infarming for workers close to retirement or facing layoff inrecognition of the rural backgrounds of much of its workforce.

Still, there are limits to what the land can sustain. Theloss of tens of thousands of jobs from the gold mining sector in1994 to 2004, coupled with a 40 percent increase in thepopulation, means it is already eroded and overgrazed.

"Land erosion and deterioration ... are already seen asresults of this newly induced population pressure," researchersnoted in a 2004 study in the Journal of the South AfricanInstitute of Mining and Metallurgy.

The new wave of job losses comes as South Africa's goldindustry, which has produced a third of the bullion ever mined,faces growing cost pressures and depressed metal prices in theworld's deepest mines.

About half of the country's platinum mines are also losingmoney at current prices.

The migrant labour force is now partly their undoing as thelow skills of a semi-literate workforce constrain productivitywhile income disparities fuel labour unrest. Dozens of peoplehave been killed in the past 20 months in a turf war between theANC-allied National Union of Mineworkers and rapidly growingAssociation of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Impala Platinum (Implats) has said part of itsfocus has been on raising the literacy levels of its labourforce, a trend which can help lift its own productivity and giveformer miners more of a chance outside of the shafts.

In its latest annual report, Implats says 80 percent of itsworkforce had basic levels of adult literacy in 2013, overdouble the 30 percent recorded in 2008.

The fledgling fruit farmers still face many obstacles - notleast a perception in the region that agriculture here is stilllargely a peasant and not commercial activity, unlike in otherregions, where white farmers predominate.

In the town of Lusikisiki, about 50 kms (30 miles) fromSomakhephu's groves, Monica Nduli, a middle-aged woman sellingfruit on the roadside, said she sourced her produce fromKwaZulu-Natal, 150 km (90 miles) away.

"In Transkei? Never! It's only in KwaZulu-Natal that we getsuch fruit," she told Reuters.

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