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September 15, 2012

South Africa's killed miners

Scott Stockdale

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During the week prior to police opening fire and killing 34 miners at the Lonmin mine at Marikana in South Africa's North West province, on Thursday August 16, ten people were killed in clashes with police. Over 200 mineworkers remain in police custody, arrested after the deadly August 16th crackdown.

On the following Monday Lonmin, a London-based platinum producer, issued an ultimatum to miners still on strike to report for work by 7 am on Tuesday or face dismissal.

Mining in South Africa has been the main driving force behind the history and development of Africa's most advanced and richest economy. Large scale and profitable mining started with the discovery of a diamond on the banks of the Orange River in 1867 by Erasmus Jacobs and the subsequent discovery and exploitation of the Kimberley pipes a few years later.

Ownership of the diamond and gold mines became concentrated in the hands of a few entrepreneurs, largely of European origin, known as the Randlords.

Ever since the Kimberley diamond strike of 1868, South Africa has been a world leader in diamond production.

The primary South African sources of diamonds, including seven large diamond mines around the country, are controlled by the De Beers Consolidated Mines Company.

In 2003, De Beers operations accounted for 94% of the nation's total diamond output of 11,900,000 carats. This figure includes both gem stones and industrial diamonds. Diamond production rose in 2005 to over 15,800,000 carats.

Despite the collapse of apartheid with the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, the vestiges of apartheid remain in the economic structure of the country.

South Africa depends on mining exports, led by gold and diamonds, to support its economy, and the mining industry depends on cheap black labour for its huge profits.

Although South Africa's annual per capita income of about $3,170 places it among middle-income countries, this is not the whole story. Although 13 per cent of the population (about 5.4 million people) live in “first world” conditions, South Africa's income disparities are among the most extreme in the world, with 53 per cent (about 22 million people)  living in “third world” conditions. Only a quarter of the households in this group have electricity and running water, over a third of the children suffer from malnutrition and only half the people in this group have a primary school education. Life expectancy declined by more than 12 per cent between 1990 and 2001.

Despite being classified as an upper-middle income country by the World Bank, unemployment in South Africa sits between 25 and 36 per cent. An estimated 50 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line. Recently, Unicef said that seven out of ten children live in homes that endure severe poverty.

The Sowetan and Amandla magazine described South Africa as "an abnormal country … where the value of human life, especially that of the African, continues to be meaningless", while Amandla said the recent tragedy "sums up the shallowness of transformation."

This situation has existed in South African mining for generations. Company owners are making huge profits at the expense of poor black workers living in squalid settlements and working under life-threatening conditions.

One of the founders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Sol Plaatje, described black miners in 1914 as “subterranean heroes who, by day and by night, for a mere pittance lay down their lives to the familiar ‘fall of rock.”

Moreover, company owners and government officials made no secret of the fact that they valued diamonds over the lives of black workers.

In 1874, in the book South African Diamond Fields: a practical matter-of-fact account, A. H. Hornsby described what happened to black workers caught stealing diamonds.

“Theft would meet with but scant trial, the thrust of an assagai or a blow of a kerry being receipt in full for deeds done on the earth, and a free pass to the world beyond ... This diamond robbery most cruel and the worst crime that can be committed, short of murder – if even that.”

Fortunately, no one has been executed in South Africa since 1989. The last execution by the South African government was on 14 November 1989. Capital punishment was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court on June 6, 1995.

For generations, white company officials worked with government officials to pass laws such as poll and hut taxes, pass laws, and Masters and Servants Acts to ensure a cheap continuous supply of black labour because the black people had no other employment options.

When the African Mine Worker's Union (AMWU) was formed in 1941, black miners earned 70 Rand a year, while white miners earned 848 Rand. In 1922, it what became known as the Rand Rebellion, company management tried to introduce cheaper black labour into skilled positions; and white miners went on strike.

As far back as August 4, 1946 over 1,000 miners – members of the African Mine Worker's Union (AMWU) formed five years earlier in order to address the fact that white mineworkers wages were 12 times that of black workers - protested in Market Square in Johannesburg, The 1946 mineworkers strike ignited the anti-apartheid movement.

To this day, the mining industry remains dependant on cheap labour, much of which comes from neighbouring countries.

A recent Bench Marks Foundation study of platinum mines in the North West province sheds light on rising worker discontent. Lonmin was cited as the mine with the highest level of fatalities, and poor living conditions for workers. Moreover, almost a third of Lonmin's workforce is employed through third party contractors. 

Under this system– in place since minerals were discovered in the 19th Century – labour brokers search southern African countries for cheap labour. The ANC's policy of continuing to cooperate with these labour brokers is one of the unions' principal grievances.

The Bench Marks study found that fatalities have doubled at Lonmin since January 2011. Meanwhile, the company favours contractors and migrant workers over the local people. At RDP Township – one of the townships the company built for migrant workers – Bench Marks researchers found broken down drainage systems spilling directly into the local river.

The company dismissed 9000 workers last May and these workers lost their homes in the company's housing projects.

In recent years the platinum mining industry has prospered like no other thanks to the increased popularity of platinum jewellery and the use of the metal in vehicle exhaust systems in the United State and European countries.

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