Mining is breaking peoples resolve, all for pennies!

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Mine workers during a typical day at work.
The story

I believe that with the mining sector still a prominent component of the South African economy, it’s easier to crunch the numbers and forget all else.

I come from a town named Welkom. It sits on the southernmost edge of the Witwatersrand basin, containing some of Earth’s best and most abundant gold deposits. 

Life here was born of and still is primarily influenced by mining. Where Manhattan has skyscrapers, we have tailings dams as prominent sky features. Our mines are also shockingly deep and long, with a mean depth of three kilometres and a length greater than ten. Suffice it to say, plenty of gold has been mined over the years. And an incredible amount of workforce has been tasked with carrying this laborious task.

A damaged tailings dam in Merriespruit, outside Welkom

Mines are the only companies I know of, that have turned people in their forties into old men and women. That results from severe back injuries from inhumane labour and inhospitable working conditions. Add to that manipulation and exploitation.

Many men are here, mining, but the roots of their being, their families, are back home. Back home could mean a different province or, most likely, a foreign country.

Also, mines are the only places where the death of an employee is overridden by the following day.

You can also imagine the lack of human dignity when men of all ages are expected to shower bare next to each other and retreat to their componis(compounds), or shelters, without their lovers present.

Miners are some of the toughest people I have ever met, but they rely on alcohol; Loads of it! It may fill the void at times or express their bravado.

Have you ever had a loved one come home reeking and distressed because work was a nightmare?

Have you held their spine and wondered whether this might be the last time you see this person erect?

Have you ever met a man whose resolve keeps fading by the day, or who has to take remedial actions against company policy because they have to preserve a bit of themselves by abstaining from work or medicating?

Well, these are an everyday occurrence in my home town. Recently we lost a community member to Silicosis(A fatal lung condition caused by inhaling underground toxins). We also learned that his replacement at work was disturbingly swift. Also, no top management was even at his funeral. That is despite this man working for the company for over a decade.

Tshepong Gold mine, Welkom(Shaft lift shown)
For one man, coming of age has been his rescue.

He has survived all the dangers of this space, with a few near-death scares, to come out on the other side. But even for him, this seemed too good to be true, I mean surely. For a man who had worked for this one mine for over thirty years, he should know first-hand the exploits of these institutions, right? Well, I am sure he knew. However, I don’t suspect that even in his wildest fancies, he would have anticipated the pennies he would receive as a retirement package. To put it in numbers, he received four/fifths of a single million rand. For all his THIRTY plus years of service there.

Sometimes it feels like mine bosses study employees to know what type of retirement packages to tailor for them!

But, you need to understand something about how the mines hire people. Firstly, and most obviously, mines employ a bulk of uneducated, low-wage labour—a chunk of people with disposable qualities. Occasionally, but mostly due to unions intervening, the mines will train these people. But as bad fortune would have it, most trainees grow indebted to these mines.

Lack of education could mean plenty of things, one of them could be a lack of homeliness. Some people never had fathers present because they worked in foreign lands in the mines. And now the descendants are following suit. And the severance package for them is basic training courses.

Many people will never get to know their fathers because mines brought hostels and brothels with them.

That is where young ladies would try and lure men into having intercourse with them for mine money and alcohol.

Remember the HIV/STD epidemic? Even today, many women and men can only relate to one portion of their families, one portion of themselves. The picture of the man, the father, being almost permanently erased.

A mine hostel in Welkom, with Zama Zamas in the foreground.

Worst yet, it feels like the top management needs to be more engaged with the grounds people. There is a saying, ‘ The CEOs of these mines are neither here nor there; they are in the UK but benefiting from the fruits of a land they know very vaguely of.’ 

They may be correct in saying that, after all, we have only seen them via video conferencing on television.

It really is strange how the world works!

But honestly, I care less who owns the mines and where they live. Of course, it would have made meaningful sense if that person was a local person, educated and decent, with strong leadership traits.

But at this stage, I believe the most important thing is to pressure the mines to continuously improve working conditions and better people’s salaries, affording them dignity.

The last eventuality we hope for is people with broken spines, and a leader who is neither here nor there. One must give; that is what the people are asking for.

Thank you for reading.

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