The Spark September 2010
by Terry Bell
In the stygian depths of South Africa’s mines, 556 mainly young men
died between 2007 and 2009. It is a shocking statistic, nearly four
times the international benchmark for mine deaths per hour worked.
But it is just the tip of a huge, largely ignored, mass of horrendous suffering and exploitation that has blighted the country for more than a century.
Add to the 556 the hundreds of men who die each year from preventable
lung diseases and the thousands who continue to suffer or retreat to
their homes, injured and incapacitated, most with little and, all too
often, no compensation.
“This,” says campaigning lawyer, Richard Spoor, “is the real horror.
The media concentrates on the deaths of (legally employed) miners
where there is at least a relatively reasonable amount of compensation
paid to widows and family.”
In the rural areas of this country and in neighbouring states,
thousands of men are even now wheezing their ways to painful and early
deaths, their lungs polluted by the largely preventable dust of deep
It is on the consumptive deaths and broken bodies of these miners that
many of South Africa’s great family dynasties have been founded. Much
of this wealth also flowed abroad when the political transition
arrived, financing investments from Chile to China and enabling that
Afrikaner Economic Empowerment (AEE) vehicle, Gencor, to transform
This fabulous wealth was — and continues to be — generated on the
basis of practices that, in many ways, hearken back to the worst
excesses of the industrial revolution. However, especially in more
recent years, these have been shrouded in legalistic hypocrisy and
given a mythical gloss by public relations practitioners.
But incidents in the past two weeks have again brought to the fore
what Paula Akugizibwe of the Aids and Rights Alliance for Southern
Africa has dubbed “a human rights scandal”. The incidents were the
killing by security guards of at least four miners at the Grootvlei
mine near Benoni and the Constitutional Court challenge brought on
Tuesday by Spoor on behalf of seriously ill miner, Thembikile Mankaye.
The medical expenses and lost earnings suffered by Mankaye, like so
many miners a migrant from the rural Transkei, are estimated at R2
million. The payout from his AngloGold employers in terms of the
discriminatory benefit scheme for miners: R16 000.
The miners at Grootvlei — where workers have not been paid since June
— were zama-zamas (those prepared to “have a go”). Mainly young, but
with experience of the vast underworld in which they volunteer to risk
life and limb to enable their families and themselves to survive, they
have also been accused of vandalism.
Unsurprisingly, parts of mine property have been stripped and sold.
As the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) points out, these are men
who have had no running water or electricity, and have not been paid
But, beneath the ground, in the shafts and tunnels of the mine, there
is gold, a mineral that now sells for more than $1 000 a Troye ounce.
Given that sort of money, there are many middle men only too willing
to pay R500 or even R1 000 for a sample or more to the men who know
where to find it and how to extract it.
The actions of these zama-zamas — whether in the Free State,
Witwatersrand or the older diggings around Barberton — are dictated by
economic necessity. And they suffer usually worse conditions and even
lower pay than when formally employed. The estimated 100 “illegal”
miners who died more than 1km under the earth at the Harmony mine in
Welkom last year were apparently employed, and like the surviving
Grootvlei zama-zamas, were merely trying to make ends meet.
But, in both cases, a largely unquestioning media tended to accept the
labels of “pirates”, “thieves” and “illegals” pinned on the miners by
the publicity machinery of the mining and security companies. Yet
questions need still to be asked as to why, more than a year after the
Harmony tragedy, there has still been no proper investigation or
Especially since the dead were working miners. They did not descend,
clandestinely by ropes, down forgotten shafts, deep beneath the
ground. In their overalls and wearing lamp-bearing hard hats, they
went down in the mine company cage to do the job they were paid for.
Only their employer was not the sub-contractor licenced by the mine
owners to dig and die for gold.
All too often these days, miners are not even employed by the company
holding the mining licence. Sub-contractors hire the workers,
enabling the owners — Pontius Pilate like — to wash their hands of any
responsibility for the callous brutality that continues to be the
price paid in order to fill up their troughs of wealth. And
shareholder spaces vacated by the former AEE beneficiaries are now
taken up by their BEE counterparts — and little or nothing changes.
That has been the way for many decades in one of the few countries in
the world where it is illegal, privately, to own gold or diamonds.
This, as Spoor points out, is a ruling that means the state — and,
therefore, the taxpayer — foots the bill for much mining product
But zama-zama miners could not operate in the modern, deep-level mines
of the Free State without the involvement of management at a fairly
senior level. Which is perhaps why there has never been a serious
investigation into how so-called “illegals” are able to enter deep-
level mines in a perfectly legitimate way.
As the mining unions point out, the pirates — the crooks — are those
in management and perhaps higher up, who, in the name of profit, allow
miners to continue breathing deadly, dust-laden air.
Improvements continue to be promised and nobody would surely argue
with the report on the frightening incidence of TB on the mines that
noted: “preventive measures are an urgent necessity”. That report,
of the Milner Commission, was written in 1903.