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Government, Politics & Issues

Deadly strikes symptom of unrest, harsh conditions at South Africa's platinum mines

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 17, 2012 - Nearly half a mile under the reddish rocks of South Africa’s arid North West province, thousands of miners toil in the cramped tunnels and intense heat of the region’s platinum mines, which are among the world’s most productive – and most controversial.

Complaints of low wages and harsh conditions – as well as calls to nationalize the lucrative mines – have led to a series of strikes in the "Platinum Province." And on Thursday, 34 striking miners were killed and 78 wounded after police opened fire on them at a mine near Rustenburg. It was the worst police massacre since the days of apartheid rule in South Africa.

The Sowetan – a newspaper published in Soweto, the big Johannesburg township that led the struggle against apartheid – warned in an editorial that the shootings signal that “the time bomb ... has stopped ticking – it has exploded. Africans are pitted against each other. ... They are fighting for a bigger slice of the mineral wealth of the country.”

The disparity between the profits from platinum and the conditions of the miners – as well as the impoverished communities where their families live – is apparent to visitors. Four years ago, I did so as a journalist, donning a miner’s outfit and riding a cage-like elevator a half mile into the depths of a platinum mine not far from the Lonmin mine where the violence erupted this week.  

In the hot and dark tunnels, miners wedged into three-foot-high crevasses to drill for ore; set explosives into holes marked by engineers with fluorescent paint; sloshed through slippery streams of runoff water; and coupled together five-foot-high hopper rail cars that carried ore. Safety signs are plastered every few yards – placards with slogans such as “We are proud to be safe!” and “Are you doing what you can to prevent accidents?”

When I asked one of the sweat-drenched miners about his working conditions, he just shook his head sadly and touched the rock ceiling about an inch above him. The above-ground conditions aren’t much better, as many miners during the work week live in crowded wooden barracks, where lung diseases and HIV/AIDs are common.

Despite efforts over the years to improve the mines’ safety records, the trade union Solidarity reported a 29 percent increase in the number of deaths in South Africa’s platinum mines in the first five months of the year – even though the rates of fatal accidents in the country’s extensive gold and coal mines had declined. Thirteen miners died as a result of mine accidents in North West province this year, the union said, mostly in platinum mines scattered around Rustenburg. In one recent year, 40 platinum miners died as a result of accidents.

For years, groups like the Bench Marks Foundation – a church-affiliated organization that monitors social, environmental and economic standards of the operations of multinational companies in Africa – have warned that economic conditions and pollution had made the townships and other communities around the platinum mines a powder keg for potential social unrest.

And this week, that unrest – the culmination of a series of strikes at mines in the area, including labor walkouts at the mine I had visited – boiled over into violence that ended 34 lives. Police, who lost two officers in the clashes, claimed they had no choice other than to use live ammunition and tear gas to disperse thousands of workers gathered on a hilltop near the mine. Many of them brandished machetes, handguns and even spears.

Wages were cited as the main reason for the current strike – with about 3,000 skilled rock-drill operators demanding pay of about $1,500 a month – but the tension has been heightened by rivalries between the two main mineworkers unions, demands by some groups that the mines be nationalized, as well as social problems in the region. Most of the miners live in barracks during the work week while their families reside in poor townships, some without running water, many miles away.

John Capel, executive director of the Bench Marks Foundation, said a recent survey of conditions in the Rustenburg region had found only modest improvements since its study five years ago. “There are still issues relating to lung infections caused by platinosis and air pollution,” he said in a statement this week. “We still see the same concerns we raised relating to HIV/AIDS, the impact of the living-out allowance, cracked housing, unguarded pits, conflicts of interest, land issues, unemployment and the unsafe working conditions, as well as women’s safety.”

Rustenburg, about an hour’s drive west of Johannesburg, has staked its claim in recent decades as one of the world’s centers of platinum mining. The nation’s fastest-growing city, it lies on the western segment of the Bushveld igneous complex, an ancient formation that holds nearly three-quarters of the world’s known platinum reserves. With the price of platinum at about $1,450 a troy ounce, the potential worth of the South African reserves is huge.

But mining and processing platinum is a difficult and expensive process, mine owners point out, and the price of the commodity has waxed and waned depending on the demand for its industrial uses, including as a component of auto catalytic converters. For each ton of ore that miners load into hopper cars, only about a tablespoon of platinum is extracted after milling, smelting and refining.

Extracting enough platinum is not as big of an issue, however, as safety, morale, and severe skill shortages that are caused by South Africa’s mining and construction booms. Social pressures on mining companies are intensifying, with the activist youth wing of the African National Congress calling for profit-sharing or nationalization.

Eighteen years after the end of white apartheid rule in South Africa, the nation still faces inequality, with the white minority and a relatively small black elite controlling much of the economy while the majority of black Africans demand better jobs, housing, education and health care. In a sense, the platinum violence is a microcosm of that wider tension. 

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