Defend Truth


Mining: The hard truth about ‘soft’ issues

Professor Philip Frankel is a mining consultant and the author of Between the Rainbows and the Rain: Marikana, Mining, Migration and the Crisis of Modern South Africa. See or contact the author directly at [email protected]

Despite ambitious goals being set for the mining industry in the past, it remains both hazardous and poverty-stricken. And it doesn’t look like change is coming any time soon.

I first encountered the Marikana massacre at London’s Kings Cross. I was waiting for a train to a conference on human trafficking at Cambridge when I saw the headline, “Killings in South Africa”. My interest piqued, I read about the appalling events in the North-West Province.

That was about ten months ago, and neither the killings nor their dubious legacy for South Africa have gone away. Marikana looks much the way it did before 16 August, except the police station – then under construction and offering “five-star accommodation” – is now complete. Nkaneng, the sprawling shantytown and home of most Lonmin workers paid to “sleep out”, still spews across the veld, while maintaining its status as one of the worst mine slums I have encountered in Africa. Some of the wire used to corral workers on the tragic day is now losing its razor sheen and rusting.

Rusting may also be the operative word on a wider landscape. Farlam may produce some sort of tentative document in the next few weeks, but other than providing detail, this is not likely to go much beyond the key aspects of the massacre process which unrolled to culmination over a week last year. These include around 3,000 disgruntled workers who killed and were killed in turn, an adolescent union struggling to keep control, NUM and Lonmin virtually disempowered in the face of mounting violence and, not least of all, a public order police force which initial evidence shows to be even more incompetent than our worst expectations.

The platinum industry continues to flounder in its efforts to “restructure”, or to put less fine a point on it, dispose of tens of thousands of cheap, unproductive and unsafe labour accumulated over at least the last fifty years. This is an essential if inhumane component of an entire industry seeking to quickly, if belatedly, align with modern mean-and-lean mining practice based on small, highly skilled workforces armed with advanced technology.

The Chamber, one notes with satisfaction, has now decided to discourage production bonuses that have seduced economically marginalised labour to work at high risk, kill themselves and their colleagues through the history of South African mining. We will now purportedly have the safety incentivisation that less kow-towing mining analysts first advocated at least ten years ago. In the meantime, thousands of miners have died in industrial accidents.

Three hundred per month or roughly thirty per day continue to experience “lost-time injuries”. These are injuries serious enough to stop the production line in its tracks. Should the DMR “section” the mine under Provision 54 of the Mine Health and Safety Act, as it increasingly does, this means mined ounces lost as well as profits. Each death   now costs over R8m per “incident”, to use the sanitising terminology of mining leadership.

Our mines killed an estimated 108 miners outside massacres last year – no-one is quite sure exactly – and are doing quite well in 2013, with only 33 reported deaths by mid-May. This, in a system where communications and “reporting” are major weaknesses, and where thousands upon thousands of workers are constantly boarded off and then returned at any given time to the poverty-struck rural nodes of South and Southern. Here they eventually expire of occupational health injuries ranging from from TB to silicosis.

This is also 2013, the year designated by mining leadership five years ago as the year of “zero-harm” in the industry, when we are supposed to come into rough alignment safety-wise with other major industrialised mining nations. Clearly, something has gone wrong, and some of this has to do with the wider context of Marikana.

The massacre and this context are explored in my just-released book entitled Between the Rainbows and the Rain: Marikana, Mining, Migration and the Crisis of Modern South Africa. This does not seek to pre-empt Farlam, but to rather examine Marikana as symbolic of a wider universe almost two decades after “liberation”.

The industry, to be frank, is killing less, and most of the “progressive” mines are taking steps which should improve safety further along with increased quality of production and enhanced business performance. This is acknowledged in “Rainbow” which begins with the known details of the massacre and then goes on to look at the generics in mines, around mines and at the nexus of mining and government.

In the mines, not excluding Lonmin, Marikana has had the effect of raising to the surface fundamental and, at this point, largely irresolvable factors central to how South African mining functions. These are not simply about pay, union membership or even appallingly hazardous working conditions. Rather the core issues are mine management and supervisory staff who have little concern with the value of life as opposed to rock, an entrenched passive-aggressive culture, virtually no workable communications from the sunshine into the stopes and levels of human risk that are entirely out of alignment with worker rewards.

Incentivising safety is a nice idea and a valuable step forward, but unless we deal with these more fundamental issues, as long as mines continue to make technical improvements without reference to people, we will remain to some extent a renegade in the elite club of industrialised mining nations. This means becoming increasing non-competitive in the global market, virtually nil foreign investment in mining, the last big players unbundling or otherwise moving off-shore and, as I was told by one of the most powerful corporate leaders in the mining world, the end of South African mining as we know it.

Marikana also draws attention to the factors that now, then and increasingly this year and onwards, will continue to drive miners to the surface to protest and engage in violence against the mines, the authorities and also amongst each other. This presages serious conflicts in near-mine communities without viable public health systems, job opportunities, food or physical security.

With porous borders due to geography and pervasive corruption in the police force, huge numbers of undocumented people are pouring into South Africa from the rest of the continent. Some of these end up mine settlements such as Nkaneng in the expectation of work, but then become the victims of a largely silent xenophobia intrinsic to the struggle for scarce resources.

Others less fortunate become the victims of callous opportunists, human smugglers and criminal gangs who traffic huge quantities of refugee labour into the mines, (as well as the agricultural sector, manufacturing and, in the case of both children and girls, our proliferating “erotic industries”). In mining, this is facilitated by literally thousands of illegal and unregistered labour brokers, who deceptively recruit mine workers and then infiltrate their victims into both illicit and legal mines through collusion with mine officials up to senior management, local police and even human traders who are tactically well placed within the labour movement.

South and Southern Africa, as few know, is one of the ten biggest routes for human trafficking and modern slavery in the entire world. The economy, especially the informal and less regulated portions, are awash with people who are not only being exploited as is normal in our historic experience, but are denied exit from their work.

In the mining industry, this is not only because of vicious brokering by groups with links to criminal networks dealing in a side trade of women, children, narcotics and small arms, but also because many brokers have the added capacity to lend money to miners earning a pittance of R4,500 per month. This leads to debt bondage for themselves, their families and, when inherited, succeeding generations.

The sheer scale of the problem is mounting on a daily basis, precisely because of urbanisation, which brings huge numbers of displaced people into the under-serviced shanty areas that now sprawl in the North West all the way from Rustenburg to Klerksdorp.

Very little in the human development agenda of the mines recognises these realities or impacts to change them. Indeed, very little development prompted by the Charter and related legislation is sustainable outside the glossy reports now routinely attached to the annual financial statements of the bigger mining houses.

This is not only because of nation-wide institutional decomposition of local government, which has the key responsibility for local economic development, but because most mine management below corporate level lacks the slightest of conception of development in alignment with international best practice. Because, with exceptions, nobody cares, and people remain “soft” issues (read secondary) in the mining world. DM

Professor Philip Frankel is a mining consultant and the author of Between the Rainbows and the Rain: Marikana, Mining, Migration and the Crisis of Modern South Africa. See or contact the author directly at [email protected]


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