PHOTO: DAVID RANSOM
Gold without glister
The pursuit of an un-naturally heavy, completely useless metal drives the South African economy
and blights the lives of the migrant labourers who mine it. David Ransom goes
underground to unearth the hard facts of a dirty business.
‘In a fairground you’d pay good money for this,’ grins Judith, my companion from the National Union of Mineworkers. As the cage falls away beneath the soles of my boots I reflect that I’d be willing to pay very much better money not to have to do this at all. Ice – tipped into chutes at the side of the mineshaft by what is claimed to be the largest refrigerator in the world – shrieks after us, spraying us with mist.
Three kilometres underground the stale air smells of earth. We clamber through tunnels that grow smaller, darker, more suited to rabbits, until we reach a white man who sits with his back against the tunnel wall, his legs across its floor, smoking a cigarette.
We have reached what remains of the stope – the ‘Reef’ of grey rock that is pursued into the bowels of the earth beneath Johannesburg by crazed mining companies. From it still flows the wealth that drives, in one way or another, the lives of virtually every South African. Gold provides 70 per cent of mining employment and 80 per cent of total mining exports, which in turn provide 80 per cent of South Africa’s export trade.1
We are at the bottom of one of the deepest mines in the world, where the Reef is just 90 centimetres wide. It falls sharply away to the right, rises to the left. We enter as if into the jaws of a giant vice, propped open by bits of wood. We scramble, lying at an angle, towards the stope face itself.
The ice-cooled ventilation no longer operates effectively and the temperature rockets. I am blinded by perspiration. My heart races, my lungs labour, my muscles seize, my brain vibrates inside my skull with the piercing thud of pneumatic drills hidden somewhere in the darkness. I am utterly terrified. I think of the distance to the surface and feel an overwhelming urge to flee. I have been here just a couple of minutes. Thousands of people work – and sometimes die – here, eight hours a day, six days a week, a year at a time, for years on end.
In this very place, not much more than a year ago, a white ‘miner’ pulled a gun on a black ‘mineworker’ who tried to get into the same cage for the long haul up to the surface, and shot him dead. The letters ‘AWB’, denoting the far-right racist organization, are scrawled on a wall and left untouched.
Back on the surface a caged walkway runs for a kilometre or so through woods and across fields from the top of the mineshaft to what is referred to as a ‘hostel’ but looks more like a concentration camp. Confined within barbed wire, corrugated-iron roofs and long, grey walls that also serve as the back of their homes, some 5,000 men live 20, 30 even 50 to a cell, around a succession of paved yards. At the centre of one such yard is the ‘canteen’ with its stench of foul food; in another the ‘showers’, dozens of nozzles hung above a concrete pit; in a third the ‘bar’, a barricaded warehouse dispensing the beer cans that litter the concrete.
I have been smuggled in here by Gabriel, the full-time shaft steward of the National Union of Mineworkers. Gabriel speaks with great assurance and thoughtfulness, prefacing his remarks with ‘at the end of the day’.
Soft human hum
In the Union office – it took years of agit-ation and strikes in this mine to gain recognition for the Union just a couple of years ago – I speak to Patricia, who dispenses basic medical advice. I ask her what is the most pressing complaint she has to deal with. ‘AIDS,’ she says without hesitation. There is no evidence whatever of even the most basic forms of education or preventive care.
For a few hours I walk with Gabriel through the soft human hum of the ‘hostel’, which in places resembles a giant wardrobe of clothing and boots hung out to air.
‘If your heart is not satisfied,’ says John, sitting at a bare metal table in the middle of his cell, ‘you are not happy. At least if you are paid enough money you can enjoy life. Most of the people who came here with me in 1982 saw that they were wasting their time and went home. But I have problems and there are no other jobs. Otherwise I would have left the mine a long time ago.’
John is not untypical. He earns $160 a month at the stope face – those who work on the surface earn perhaps half that. He comes from the ‘homeland’ of Bophuthatswana. Like all the ‘mineworkers’ here, some 60 per cent of whom are from Mozambique, he is an unskilled labourer, virtually without education, who leaves his home, wife and children for a year at a time to work out his next contract. There are in South Africa some 600,000 mineworkers like him.
The extreme conditions in the mine, the ‘hostel’ prison, the paltry pay and the migrant-labour system combine, I think, to create a dreadful form of human anguish more commonly imposed as a punishment. To survive it one must somehow adapt, but to remain human one must also object.
The previous day I had been entertained for lunch by the mine management at their private golf club. I asked them whether, in their opinion, they would ever employ a well-paid workforce. ‘No,’ came the clipped response. Why not recruit local labour? ‘We tried it and it didn’t work. They wouldn’t stay.’ Accidents and injuries? ‘Ninety per cent human error. They don’t do what they are told.’ Thus are the lives of the 600 people who are killed and the 6,000 seriously injured in the mines of South Africa every year so casually dismissed. A black worker who spends 20 years underground faces a one-in-thirty chance of being killed and a one-in-two chance of being permanently disabled.2
Now, I know something about the mining industry and I know that the deep-vein techniques employed in this country are extremely risky and expensive. There is, I suspect, nowhere else in the world where such an industry could have existed at all, let alone prospered. It has done so because a ruthless system of migrant labour, bolstered by the apartheid state, has produced the cheapest workforce conceivable short of actively seeking to exterminate its members.
Two-thirds of South African gold reserves have now been extracted, and as the mines get deeper they become more ‘marginal’, yet more reliant on cheap labour. Even if the price of gold averages around its current $350 per ounce, production is set to fall from 614 tonnes in 1992 to 414 tonnes by 2007; at $300 per ounce it would fall to just 250 tonnes, less than half present levels.1
For the time being there is optimism on all sides that something, some kind of miraculous economic ‘diversification’, will eventually turn up to replace gold. It is true that the half-dozen huge companies which run the gold industry – Anglo American, General Mining-Union Corporation (Gencor) and Consolidated Goldfields prime among them – also run almost everything else in South Africa. But gold mining is what they know – indeed, it is really all South Africa knows about industrial development and trade in a ‘global’ economy – and these companies are just as likely to look elsewhere for their gold as to promote employment in new industries in South Africa.
I give Gabriel a lift back to his home township, south-east of Johannesburg. On the way we pass Dawn Park where the young, inspirational ANC leader Chris Hani was murdered just a couple of years ago. At the township the crude road is diverted beneath a modern highway to which there is no connection. Signposts disappear, replaced here and there by armed police searching for weapons. At a crossroads jammed with ‘combi’ mini-bus taxis Gabriel leaps out of the car. ‘Turn right, drive like hell,’ he says, ‘and don’t stop’. He phones to check I’ve arrived safely. It is, as Gabriel would say, the end of the day.
PHOTO: DAVID RANSOM
1 Making Democracy Work, Macro-Economic Research Group, Cape Town, 1993.
2 The Challenge of Mining Health and Safety, Fleur Plimner, monograph report to NUM, June 1994.
I have not identified the mine in order to reduce any potential risk to individual NUM members who work there. But it was not run by the Anglo American Corporation, which refused my request for a mine visit. A spokesperson said he could see no point in subjecting the company to any further abuse by what he called ‘anti-business publications’.
F R A G M E N T S O F T H E D A W N
Saving the soul of the ANC
The NUM represents predominantly those workers who are classified as ‘unskilled’. That came about in our own, special, South African way, because blacks were excluded from registered trade unions by a law which was only repealed in 1979.
We now have to address the disabilities that came with the exclusion of our members from all training opportunities. Sometimes, when you talk about the way apartheid operated, it’s as if you were talking fiction. The Mineworkers Act specifically said that black workers, regardless of their aptitude, could not qualify with a Blasting Certificate – the crucial qualification was reserved for whites.
Well, change has a funny way of impacting on people’s thinking. Because the mining industry has been the backbone and catalyst of industrial development in South Africa, it has always been a very powerful lobby with the Government. The employers’ organization, the Chamber of Mines, is now doing its damnedest, confronted with the new situation, to change thinking in its favour – even inside the ANC.
But Pik Botha [Foreign Minister of the apartheid regime and now Minister of Mines] is also concerned about his own future and we find he is amenable. In fact we find that all the old bureaucrats, who were in the past very belligerent, are now amenable to suggestions. They have to protect themselves by opening up to those who represent tomorrow. I think Pik Botha feels he must at least try to be seen as a progressive because the conservative elements who want to preserve the past are an endangered species.
We think ‘reconstruction’ is about changing the mindset of everyone. We have been recipients of assistance from all over the world because we have been regarded as victims of apartheid. We are now in a position not only to do things for ourselves – we must assist others as well. We suggest that on one national holiday, say 16 June, all working people should go to work and all the proceeds should go towards funding Reconstruction and Development Programme projects. We think that would help change the mindset. The projects could be, say, in the area of housing – and with decent housing we could do away with the migrant labour system altogether.
Apartheid served as a unifying point. You could rally the broadest cross-section of the population around the anti-apartheid programme. Now that apartheid has gone there’s going to be a realignment.
In fact the threat to the ANC now is not the National Party. It is big business. Big business will shower those comrades who are now in parliament or government with all sorts of gifts. That’s the first line of attack. The trick is whether those comrades will have the ability to deal with it.
Also worth reading on…South Africa
The speed of events means that most of South Africa’s great writers, poets and commentators have not yet had time to produce considered work on the new situation. There is, however, one new book that’s already a best-seller and really is worth reading. It is, of course, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (Little, Brown and Company, London 1994).
The book is not without its snags. It is long, weighs a lot and is quite expensive – although Mandela has promised a paperback version soon. Sometimes you can detect the presence of a ghost-writer. Its elevated, patrician viewpoint occasionally turns monotonous. Because Mandela is such a consummate politician – he has an extraordinary ability to personify his political project – you can also find yourself wondering whether you aren’t being served a careful interpretation rather than a straight-forward account of his life.
But it is not dishonest. He tells you, for example, that although as a young man he worked in the gold mines of Johannesburg, his connections among the African leadership meant that his work was largely clerical and privileged. He acknowledges continuity with, and indebtedness to, his forerunners in the long struggle.
You can read the book as a wonderful story with an unlikely, happy ending that you already know. Or you can use it to gain some insight into the history and dignity of black South Africa. Above all, you can read it for the transparent wisdom of a great man.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995