Mining for gold, dicing with death

At the time of writing on Thursday, the bodies of 76 illegal miners had been brought to the surface at Harmony Gold’s Eland shaft in Welkom.

Had these been legal miners, this would have been treated as a disaster, but it is instead being seen as a criminal matter by the mining company and the government. Like cable thieves, not many tears will be shed for the deceased, outside of their families. Making a living from a dangerous and illegal activity is your own business and if you get caught or die in the attempt, there will be little public outcry.

But what of these miners — according to some reports they number in the thousands — who continue to risk their lives in pursuit of gold? Many of them work in a warren of tunnels under Welkom, and it is apparently possible to walk underground for more than 35km. Many of the miners are also said to come from Lesotho, which suggests they will do anything to escape the grinding poverty in their own country.

Are they, as Mining Minister Susan Shabangu and others maintain, working for syndicates? Miners can earn as little as R4 000 a month, and will be tempted by an offer of half that to assist in the illegal operations.

The disaster also shows that one of the largest gold mining companies in the world does not have control over its disused shafts. Until the shafts are secured and legal miners are paid better, it appears there will be little change in the status quo.

Meanwhile, as the gold price edges towards $1 000 an ounce, unions have rejected a 6% pay increase offer by the Chamber of Mines, calling it a “pittance”. The National Union of Mineworkers is demanding a 15% pay rise and said it would not settle for anything less.

For its part, the Chamber said its latest offer signalled an improvement over the last one and included increases in benefits.

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