Mining under the spotlight

Mining under the spotlight

Last week’s disaster at Elandsrand has highlighted the dangerous, potentially corrupt nature of the industry in South Africa.

October 8, 2007 8:30 PM
Last week, a pipe carrying compressed air fell through the Elandsrand mine in South Africa and snapped the electricity cable that powers the lift used by miners to enter and leave the site. The 3,200 miners who were underground at the time were trapped in the heat and the dark, two kilometres underground.

After a nerve-wracking 24 hours, the last of the miners walked out unhurt. If they had not, the accident may well have turned into a political crisis for the ANC.

The mining industry lies at the heart of South Africa’s history. The country became a battleground for European colonial powers after gold was discovered in Witwatersrand in 1886. Britain wrested control of South Africa after the Anglo-Boer war and began developing the country’s mining industry. A profitable mining sector needed an inexpensive and flexible workforce, and the mining companies created one by using concepts of racial privilege to keep black workers in unskilled, poorly paid positions.

During apartheid, the mining industry created a disjointed, fractured society in which miners were obliged to live in single sex accommodation, and to return to their home villages to see their families. There was hardly any investment in health and safety, and mines were poorly maintained.

When the ANC came to power in 1994, it promised to right all the historic wrongs of the industry and raise standards in the mines, but changes have been too slow. Around 200 miners are still killed at work every year, and despite pledges by mining companies to provide family accommodation, 70% of miners are still living in single sex hostels. As South Africa’s gold reserves are depleted, miners are asked to dig deeper, to tease out new seams in exhausted mines.

Harmony Gold, the company that owned the mine at Elandsrand, has made its money by taking over depleted mines and delving further to extract the remaining gold as cheaply as possible. It was in the process of turning the Elandsrand mine into a seven-day, 24-hour operation when the accident occurred.

Thabo Mbeki has now ordered a safety review of all South Africa’s mines, but he has not put a timeline on the review, and indeed, the department for minerals and energy is not even certain how many mines there are in the country. Miners also feel that last week’s accident was a result of an economic climate that focuses on shareholder dividends, instead of workers’ rights.

They are not the only ones to feel abandoned by the government. This year, more than one million white collar workers – teachers, nurses and engineers went on strike over pay, furious that their wage packets did not allow them to live comfortably.

Since coming to power in 1994, the ANC pursued economic policies approved of by the World Bank and the IMF. It cut corporate tax has been cut from 48% in 1994 to 30% in 1999, privatised utilities and halved the public debt. But unemployment has soared – around 40% of the population are unemployed and almost half of South Africans still live below the poverty line. The cost of water and electricity has gone up, and rising property prices are making homes unaffordable.

Relations between the ANC and the main labour union Cosatu is also breaking down over Cosatu’s backing of Jacob Zuma, the controversial former deputy president, as a successor to Thabo Mbeki. When nurses and other healthcare workers went on strike, the government broke a constitutional provision guaranteeing the right to strike and fired hundreds of workers who took part in the walkout.



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