A miner works underground at a Johannesburg gold mine. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA
A miner works underground at a Johannesburg gold mine. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA

Even somebody with the most cursory understanding of SA’s economic and social history knows that the exploitation of cheap black labour has been central to the “development” of SA’s economy. In no sector has this been more prevalent than mining, which since the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 and gold on the Rand 19 years later has ruthlessly exploited cheap black labour in its various forms.

Historically, one of the ways in which this exploitation of black labour has manifested is through the appalling health burdens (outside mining accidents) miners have endured, and continue to endure, in SA. These range from exposure to uranium (and radon) in gold mining, asbestos poisoning, above-average levels of HIV/Aids, and chronic illnesses such as silicosis, pneumoconiosis (black lung) and tuberculosis.

Research published in 2018 by the University of Cape Town showed the mortality rate among former miners in SA was 20% higher than in the general population. Only last year the mining industry was forced to establish a R5bn fund to compensate gold miners who were dying of silicosis and tuberculosis, while coal miners who worked for Sasol are suing because of its alleged failure to maintain healthy working conditions for its miners.

An overwhelming amount of occupational health research into SA’s mining sector shows that both the state and private mining companies have failed, and continue to fail, in their duty to adequately control and prevent the incidences of disease at mines and within mining communities.

But it is not just miners themselves who have been, and are still, at risk. Since 1972, with Harold Wolpe’s ground-breaking Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power in SA, we have understood how the burden of ill-health in the mining sector is largely shouldered by the communities within which miners live. Not only do these communities carry the burden of the physical and social support for mine labourers, but more recent research shows they also endure high levels of diseases associated with mining, such as pneumonia, HIV/Aids, emphysema and asthma.

All these problems are worsened by the poverty many miners and their families experience. Most miners continue to live in informal housing and have limited access to sanitation and health care — for instance, the primary demand of the workers at Marikana was for improved living conditions. An SA Human Rights Commission report in 2018 confirmed what those living around mines already knew, that “many mining-affected communities continue to experience significant levels of poverty and systemic inequality”.

Given this context, where serious underlying respiratory illness is commonplace among people living in poverty, should we be surprised that out of the 4,600 miners tested for Covid-19 as of May 28, no fewer than 384 tested positive? That’s an infection rate of 8.3% among those tested, against a national average of 4.1%, a national average that is in reality 1.9% if we exclude the Western Cape, where there are no significant mines. And these figures relate to a mining sector that was only 50% “open” during lockdown. We can safely assume that these infection rates will rise significantly now that the mining sector is completely open under level 3.

Considering the historical relationship between mining and miners’ ill-health, should we also be surprised that the minister responsible for mining, Gwede Mantashe, stated last week that he was “not shocked at the results of testing”. In other words, he expected to see higher infection rates, and thus death rates, from Covid-19 among miners than within the public. What we should be surprised by, however, is Mantashe’s apparent ignorance of Covid-19. Since well before the first case appeared in SA it was known that pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission was possible, and it therefore seems odd for the minister to characterise such transmission on the mines as a “new complication”.

What the minister’s comments reveal most starkly is that some sort of cost-benefit analysis appears to have been undertaken, comparing the costs of miners and their families’ lives lost to Covid-19 with the profits to be made from soaring metal prices. Sadly, as SA’s mining history has consistently shown us, there is nothing new in this brutal calculation; miners and their families have always been expendable in SA. Why would we expect anything different today? Mining interests remain at the heart of the government where, history shows us, they have always been.

• Overy is a research associate in environmental humanities south at the University of Cape Town. He has a PhD in modern SA history.

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