A SILENT CRIME IN THE MINES BY FRANS BALENI
Strap: The TauTona disaster should serve as a catalyst for a national health and safety campaign
In 1983, viewing conditions in the West Driefontein gold mine as dangerous, 17 miners refused to work underground. In response, the mine bosses fired them. The union took the matter to industrial court
Workers’ skeletons litter the mines of this land. Many of those killed underground were never retrieved; their families never had the opportunity to bury them decently, according to African rituals and tradition.
In the worst disasters the recovered bodies are often unidentifiable, and those families that insist on remains for ritual burials risk interring the wrong body. I am reminded of the 1996 Rovic disaster, in which 20 miners were killed but only four bodies retrieved. In the Vaal Reefs disaster (1995), 104 men died underground. Some of the bodies were so horribly disfigured that women struggled to identify their own husbands.
But every day, mineworkers continue to risk life and limb, descending into the dangerous mazes of gold. In the hard life of remote villages, where unemployment and hunger are the norm, working in the mines is an obligation.
It has become part of the conventional wisdom for both the boardroom men and the underground workers that pillar mining is the most dangerous enterprise. Nevertheless, the bosses continue to pursue this without adequate safety measures, in spite of the obvious and inherent danger to human life.
The dichotomy between those who occupy the offices of the mining houses and those who rub rocks with their shoulders is glaring. The former are guaranteed a comfortable life and respect for their personal wealth. To the latter life is a mere possibility, and the only guarantee is that one will be destitute where early death is avoided. Many die for pittance, their dreams unfulfilled. Their sons often follow in their footsteps. In the mines death looms large; life takes refuge in a tiny corner in those eight hours.
Earlier this week we buried five mineworkers killed underground last month at AngloGold Ashanti’s TauTona mine. This was just the latest grim reminder of the silent crime taking place in South Africa’s mines.
Between 1984 and 2005, more than 11 100 miners died underground in South Africa. While the overall number of deaths has been on a generally declining trend over the past two decades, the number of miners killed belowground has exceeded 200 each year since 2000.
If this is not a crime, then what is? How different is it than other subjects that dominate the national discourse such as murder, robbery and cash-in-transit heists?
The TauTona disaster brings back other grim memories – of the dead at Kinross in 1986, when 177 died; of Middelbult Colliery in 1993 (53 dead); of St Helena in 1987 (62 dead) and others too numerous to name. Mentioning these is not a rattle of some historically heroic struggle of national resistance such as Maji Maji, or the Bambatha rebellion. The numbers of workers fallen under the rocks approximates that of victims on a large battlefield. When are we going to declare an armistice?
In the wake of the Hlobane Colliery disaster in 1983, in which 68 mineworkers died, the National Union of Mineworkers took the bosses to court, arguing that they were negligent. The court agreed and, in a major victory for health and safety, found the mine guilty. The deaths at TauTona remind us that the Hlobane Colliery victory was just one important step forward, and that we require a permanent campaign for health and safety.
and won the workers’ reinstatement.
Frans Baleni is general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers
These examples serve to demonstrate that mining companies never accept responsibility for accidents underground .Why would they when these torn pieces of dark flesh are from the most marginalised parts of our society? In this regard we expect no change of heart from the mine barons.
Many mineworkers drew a measure of hope from the Leon commission’s March 1995 report – particularly when the government decided that its recommendations should be acted upon. But it took the Vaal Reefs disaster for the mine owners to implement the recommendations.
The Mine Health and Safety Act, among other important rights, entrenches the right to refuse dangerous work. The Act also formalises the election of health and safety representatives by workers to participate in health and safety commitees. But these representatives are unable to exercise these rights: their opinions are overlooked and they have no influence in exercising discretion on the danger of mining terrains.
The time has come for a campaign that seeks to ensure that the monumental precedent achieved by the 17 workers at West Driefontein is consolidated. One death underground is one death too many. It is time for an indaba on mining health and safety, and to examine technological innovations capable of warning people of seismic danger. Perhaps we also need a national monument for mineworkers, in recognition that our country’s wealth is built upon their blood and bones.
The words of TauTona survivor Lebone Kwathini are still echoing in my mind. When I visited him a day after the disaster he said, “ka hare ka mona ke taboile le tswalo”, the literal translation of which is, “what I have seen has obliterated my senses to measure danger or fear.” He was talking about the colleague he had been working with, who has now disappeared in permanent silence. That memory haunts him as he sobs in his hospital bed.
And it will be no comfort for the families of the miners just buried that the bosses who instructed them to go underground will be receiving millions of rands in bonuses.