Sun, Jun 09, 2013 - Page 14 News List

Canary no longer singing in South Africa’s mines

By David Smith  /  The Guardian, Johannesburg

Alarm bells are ringing and there is a sense that the old model is broken.

“The industry is obviously not in good shape and I hope these recent events galvanize people into action, said Peter Leon, the head of Africa mining and energy projects at law firm Webber Wentzel. “You can’t just have President Zuma making a statement and hope the problems will go away. The problems are deep-seated and need to be addressed.”

Leon said South Africa’s black economic empowerment policies had failed to give workers a stake in the mines, with only a few companies setting an example by encouraging a sense of shared ownership with financial rewards.

Zuma and the governing African National Congress party have been widely criticized for their slow response to Marikana and for favoring the NUM at AMCU’s expense.

However, Bobby Godsell, former chief executive of AngloGold Ashanti Ltd and the South African Chamber of Mines, said: “I don’t believe it’s helpful or particularly accurate to point fingers at government. What we’ve seen worldwide, for example in Australia, is a pressure on commodity prices as people believe they see the rate of Chinese growth slowing.”

Godsell praised the government for prioritizing and nurturing mining over the past decade, in contrast to the first 10 years after apartheid when it was seen as “yesterday’s industry.”

This is not the first crisis, he added. The gold sector was in dire trouble in the 1980s — also a time of deep political turmoil in South Africa — but still managed to bounce back.

Yet 19 years after the end of white minority rule, workers’ frustrations and expectations are higher than ever. The typical South African mineworker has eight dependents, many of whom live far from the shafts in remote rural areas. Despite above-inflation pay increases in recent years, the worst-paid still only make about 4,000 rand a month.

Today’s malaise is a manifestation of historical problems that have never been solved.

“People forget that the mining industry is 140 to 150 years old and its foundation was migrant labor and cheap labor. This model has not changed,” leading political economist Moeletsi Mbeki said.

The brutality of colonialism and apartheid are no longer viable, he added.

“You can’t sustain the use of force that has been the character of the mining industry. The workers themselves are now voters and much more politically savvy,” Mbeki said.

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