Miners' lives still cheap in South Africa

"Working in the mines is a painful experience," an old Sotho miner told an academic studying the lives of black workers in South African gold- mines. "Whenever you go down the shaft, you are not sure you will come out alive. You don't want to think about it, but it keeps coming. When someone is killed or badly injured you think of yourself in the position, you think of your family and you become very unstable and lonely ... Death is so real you keep praying and thanking God each time you come out alive."

That interview is more than 10 years old. Yet in the wake of Wednesday's accident at the Vaal Reefs gold-mine, south of Johannesburg, in which 104 miners were crushed to death by a runaway locomotive, it could have taken place yesterday.

The faces of the rescue workers winching the mangled remains of the dead to the surface were reflections of the denial, fear and loneliness the old Sotho mentioned.

Little has changed for miners in 10 years. Gold-mining in South Africa has always been a hazardous occupation. South African mines are the deepest in the world, and inherently dangerous.

Black workers, many migrants from inside and outside South Africa, have been the core of the labour force in the mines almost from the beginning of the industry. In a region where black unemployment runs well over 50 per cent, the lure of the mines is powerful.

During apartheid, the mines were a microcosm of the worst aspects of South African society. White foremen drove black mineworkers beyond their endurance. The safety of a replaceable labour force was considered secondary to profits. Much of the black-consciousness movement started in the mines.

Thus it is a surprise to find in the new South Africa, whose government includes numerous former mineworkers and union officials, that very little has changed for miners until now.

According to Gwede Matashe, the assistant secretary-general of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the situation in the mines is "business as usual".

"While there are racial aspects to mine safety standards, the real driving force behind the companies' attitude remains the maximisation of profits at all costs," Mr Matashe said. Black workers also suffer sub-standard housing in single-sex hostels and poor promotion prospects, he said.

Peter Bunkell, of the industry's Chamber of Mines, rejected suggestions that companies were careless about either safety or their black workers. Since race laws were abolished, Mr Bunkell said, 12,000 black mineworkers had been moved into jobs previously for whites only. "Sure, we don't have a black mine-manager yet, but that's not far in coming," he added.

Mr Bunkell said deaths in mines last year were fewer than one per 1,000 workers. But with about 500,000 people working in the mines, 500 dead in a year is not the kind of record of which any industry can be proud.

The Vaal Reefs disaster is now likely to push mine safety to the top of the political agenda. The disaster occurred just days before the report of the Leon Commission - a government-appointed inquiry which makes far- reaching recommendations for improved health and safety on the mines - was to be submitted to the government.

The government is now likely to make its recommendations law, and employees will be more closely involved in determining safety regulations. "Unfortunately it had to take another 104 dead to reach this stage," one NUM official said.

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