Where death is a corporate norm

Last year I had the difficult responsibility of addressing a memorial service at AngloGold’s Tau Tona mine, where five miners perished under the rocks. The recovery process was drawn out and emotionally tormenting. I kept imagining the grim faces of the families.

At such times my imagination is not driven by a scavenging process that seeks a target to blame. There are too many other memories—of the Kimberley Rovic disaster, where 20 miners died but only four bodies were recovered; of the Klerksdorp Vaal Reefs Disaster in 1995, when 104 men were instantly disfigured into a permanent state of silence; of the 177 who died in Kinross in 1986; and St Helena, where 62 braved an untimely death. And now of 3 200 men and women who were trapped underground at Harmony’s Elandsrand mine.

Death is a corporate norm for our members, as captured in a poem written by a prospective mineworker who was preparing to leave Lesotho for the mines near Johannesburg:

Lesotho,

Now I leave you with your mountains where I used to run,

I am going to the white man’s place—the table land,

Mohokare, now I assume another blanket,

Now that I have crossed you,

Perhaps this is the last time I crossed you,

So prepare me for death.

Such is the silent reality for multitudes of mineworkers.

Following the Tau Tona disaster, I wrote in the Mail & Guardian that “the dichotomy between those who occupy the offices of the mining houses, and those who rub their shoulders on rock, is glaring. The former are guaranteed a comfortable life and respect for their personal wealth. For the latter life is a mere possibility.”

My words were met with a vicious attack from the learned pen of Zoli Diliza, CEO of the South African Chamber of Mines. Silence over the ages has made the mining houses too comfortable with brutality. Such that I should not be saying between 2000 and 2007 that some 1 941 fatalities were experienced in the mines, or that between 2000 and 2006, 30 635 mineworkers were injured on the job.

This was not surprising because, leaving aside the CEO’s African origins, he serves an industry that has been generally and historically racist, and which inevitably employs a strategy to escape its legal and moral obligations by blaming the victims and asserting that accidents are the result of “human error”. The human would always be black, consistent with the legacy of a society characterised by a racist staircase, with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom.

Our call for effective prosecution of those responsible for deaths in the mines has fallen on no ear but the killing rocks themselves. Could it be that those who have the power of money are able to buy the wheels of justice, so that our people are denied through delay? Recall the series of fatal accidents at Beatrix and Northam between 2000 and 2004; presiding officers of the inquiries found the mine officials were negligent and charges of culpable homicide appropriate. Yet nothing has ever happened.

The intervention by President Thabo Mbeki for an audit of health and safety in the mines is most welcome. As workers we support the decision of the minister of minerals and energy in closing the operations at Harmony for six weeks so that a thorough investigation can be conducted. For negligence there must be consequence—though it will do little to alleviate the stress that 3 200 workers experienced as they were trapped underground.

The National Union of Mineworkers is contemplating a one-day strike against poor safety standards to highlight the disastrous situation.

Frans Baleni is general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers

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