Police in Limpopo last week arrested scores of workers who were protesting against the labour practices of their employer, a contract mining company largely owned by the Gupta family and President Jacob Zuma's son, Duduzane.
Simmering tension between mineworkers and JIC Mining Services, to which PhokaThaba Platinum outsources mining at its Smokey Hills mine, reached boiling point on Thursday last week when police arrested 58 protesting miners.
JIC Mining Services is majority owned by the Gupta family's Oakbay Investments and a significant stake is held by their frequent business partner, Zuma Jnr, who is also listed as a director.
JIC and Platinum Australia, PhokaThaba's parent company, have both denied accusations of unfair labour practices and said the workers defied a court order to return to work.
PhokaThaba replaced Redpath Mining with JIC last October, which led to the dispute.
Platinum Australia said in written replies that Redpath's contract was terminated "for consistent failure to achieve agreed production targets, repeated safety breaches and breaches of contract".
JIC, which had "a larger industry presence", was then appointed.
Platinum Australia's latest half-year report states that, "following the change in contractors, a majority of the underground workforce undertook industrial action relating to finalisation of payments and benefits from Redpath".
But Vusi Mabitla, a miner who sits on the workers' forum, a representative body formed by the workers themselves, said trouble started when Platinum Australia terminated Redpath's contract without consulting employees.
Mabitla said that, although JIC did not inform them in writing how much they would be paid, the company told them it would not be less than what they were paid by Redpath.
But their first payment from JIC in December was significantly less than that and they downed tools in protest.
They resumed their duties after assurances that the matter would be resolved. Nothing changed in January in spite of numerous meetings and appeals for JIC to go.
Mabitla said the workers' committee was suspended on January 27 for reasons unknown to them and management encouraged miners to elect new representatives.
"Workers refused and questioned the suspen- sions," he said.
Mabitla said the suspended forum members were instructed on February 4 to attend disciplinary hearings but when they arrived, they were arrested.
They spent four days in jail before posting bail of R800 each.
Matters came to a head last Thursday. Miners gathered outside the mine and blockaded the street with rocks to protest against Platinum Australia's failure to resolve their dispute with JIC.
"The police came and removed the rocks and told the miners to go but they stayed," Mabitla said.
"They [the police] started shooting with rubber bullets. People were injured and 58 were arrested."
They are apparently struggling to raise money for bail because "this month no worker was paid. Since January there's been no salary. We are seriously suffering. Please help us," said Mabitla.
Tronel Davis, a JIC representative, denied poor treatment of employees and said the workers were transferred from Redpath to JIC under a section of the Labour Relations Act that provides that they "on the whole should not be substantially worse off".
She said "every care" was taken to ensure that, but JIC had to impose its own standards.
That was "part of a normal change process that may bring a sense of discomfort to those used to substandard performance and not familiar with JIC's service ethic, teamwork and the perform- ance driven culture [which brings] high reward".
She said that workers were fired after "illegal" strikes before Christmas, but they were reinstated after talks with community and union representatives. Christmas bonuses were paid in spite of the strikes.
"The latitude extended ... could certainly not be described as 'poor labour conditions', 'poor labour practices' or 'mistreating' workers," she said.
But "the employees once again embarked on illegal and unprotected industrial action with effect from January 24 2011.
"Despite repeated warnings to resume normal work, the employees essentially deserted their workplaces and continued with their strike.
'Due to a worsening of the situation an urgent labour court order was once again obtained and [they were] issued with an ultimatum to return to work at the commencement of the respective shifts on February 3 2011."
When they did not heed the order, the employment of 564 workers was terminated, she said.
"JIC regards its employees as its most valuable asset and treats its employees with dignity and respect.
"The company deeply regrets that the sinister and devious motives of certain individuals are trying to discredit it to their own benefit in a situation where JIC has done nothing more than to fairly secure a commercial service agreement to provide underground mining services to this client, as it does for other clients."
She said that the complaint about low pay cheques had resulted from the no-work, no-pay principle and advance payments, later subtracted from cheques, following the initial labour action.
Lieutenant Colonel Motlafela Mojapelo, the Limpopo police spokesperson, had not responded to questions by the time the Mail & Guardian went to print.
This article was produced by amaBhungane, investigators of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit initiative to enhance capacity for investigative journalism in the public interest. www.amabhungane.co.za.