In poverty-stricken townships and forgotten rural villages across Southern Africa, thousands of desperately poor black labourers cough and wheeze their way towards an early grave.
Their lungs filled with silica dust or blighted by tuberculosis, the silent victims all share a common heritage – that of cheap labour in the backbreaking gold mines of the Rand.
Submerged in dark, fetid shafts from dusk until dawn, hacking away at the glints of gold that would sustain the apartheid regime’s credit and keep their families above the breadline, the workers ascended to cramped, unsanitary hostels replete with crime, alcoholism and violence.
Now, over twenty years after the demise of apartheid and following one of the largest class action suits in the nation’s history, the untold thousands of South African and migrant workers blighted by silicosis have finally received a small measure of justice.
Last week, six of South Africa’s largest mining companies agreed to a historic $400m fund for pre- and post-apartheid workers stricken with lung diseases from their time labouring on the world’s largest gold-bearing reef. Lawyers say that the compromise agreement, six years after workers first sought compensation, avoids the necessity of further lengthy and damaging litigation and will give workers and their families speedy access to the funds.
For the industry, the final agreement represents a satisfactory conclusion to an unwelcome legacy issue that has dogged financial statements. Yet despite the industry’s welcome recognition of historic worker neglect, the monumental tasks of implementing reform and facing up to its instrumental role in the apartheid system remain a work in progress.
True, South Africa’s mining industry has changed markedly in the last two decades. The transition to democracy presaged the beginning of the end of a century of exploitation dating back to the colonial era, in which thousands of labourers, cynically taxed by white governments in a bid force them off land and into the mines, endured virtual serfdom and terrifying death rates.
Under the ANC, black economic empowerment has prised open white boardrooms and diversified the shareholding of mining houses, while newly emboldened trade unions have successfully agitated for better working conditions, improved wages and safer accommodation. The industry has played its role, overseeing safety reforms which led to annual death rate falls in all but two years since 2000.
Yet immense challenges remain. Fatalities in the mining industry rose for the first time in a decade last year, according to the Chamber of Mines. The industry lobby recorded 81 fatalities between January and November, the bulk of them at the deep-level gold and platinum mines whose upper levels have been eviscerated by decades of activity. Here, workers can find themselves up to two miles below the surface, at risk of seismic activity and pressure changes that can spark deadly explosions. Mechanisation has been slow to advance given the resistance of trade unions to mass job retrenchments.
While improvements have been made to the hellish male-only hostels of the apartheid era, miners’ accommodation – often located in isolated rural areas far from labourers’ homes and families – remains rudimentary. Protests against unsatisfactory conditions at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in 2012 sparked an infamous police massacre of 34 miners – one of the worst instances of security force violence since 1960 – and led to fierce criticism of mining houses and warring trade unions. Wages remain a source of fierce contention – the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has submitted demands for an increase of up to 37% over the next two years in the gold sector, according to Reuters.
A fraught political environment has hardly been conducive to intelligent reform. The industry’s relationship with the government of Jacob Zuma reached a post-apartheid nadir after the former President’s botched introduction of a mining charter requiring large stakes to be handed over to black shareholders. Many suspected that would have been little more than an opportunity for well-connected Zuma allies to enrich themselves.
A new start
The election of President Cyril Ramaphosa, himself a millionaire mining magnate and ex-Lonmin board member, may be seen by less enlightened industry figures as a chance to forestall further reform.
Yet the President’s former life as general secretary of the powerful NUM during the apartheid era ought to give him significant insight into the historic issues that continue to dog the industry, including worker rights.
Far from ending reform, his election could provide an invaluable opportunity for government to work alongside industry to advance new black ownership models, boost worker safety and accommodation, and return mining to its traditional economic pre-eminence. The president is targeting an ambitious $100bn in mining investment over the next five years, but a soon to be relaunched mining charter suggests that he still has his eye on boosting black ownership.
The sensible and just recognition of ex-miners’ silicosis claims offers a model for how the industry can engage with its critics and begin to tackle the legacy of its troubled past. After years of mutual antipathy and policy drift, a fresh start is an opportunity that neither government, organised labour, nor the mining industry can afford to waste.