Johannesburg — South Africa's mining industry may soon tap a rich new resource -- skilled labor. Up to now the country's strict policies of race separation, or apartheid, have largely excluded blacks from skilled jobs. In recent years, however, the growing shortage of skilled workers has prompted the government to begin overhauling the discriminatory labor laws.
The process has been carried an important step further with the government now agreeing "in principle" to scrap the racial barriers that exclude blacks from higher-paying jobs in the mining industry. How this will be carried out in practice has yet to be seen.
The government's decision is based on the last of six labor commission reports launched in 1977. The report on mining is significant because it suggests reform in one of the nation's most economically important industries, and one that has long symbolized the entrenchment of white privilege.
"In many respects, the mining industry has become a place of refuge for white reactionary thinking," asserts one mining-industry official. Aside from the substance of the proposed removal of racial barriers, the fact that the government has supported the notion carries important political overtones as well, this official believes.
The central reform urged by the commission is that the granting of government certificates of competency for skilled mining jobs be made on the basis of ability, not race. The Mines and Works Act now requires that such certificates be granted only to "scheduled persons," which are defined by law as whites, Colored (persons of mixed race) or Mauritius creoles.
There are roughly nine times as many blacks in the mining industry as whites -- about 630,000 blacks and 93,000 whites. Certificates of competency are required for some 13 jobs categories raging from mine manager to rock blaster.
Most of the South African mining companies support the removal of racial qualifications for gaining certificates of competency.While some mining houses criticize the race barrier on moral grounds, they also have hard economic reasons for wanting to open up skilled jobs to blacks. They point to an acute shortage of white skilled miners.
The commission concluded that the exclusion of blacks from skilled mining jobs had confronted the industry with "daunting problems of wage inequity and skills shortages."
Opposition is expected to come from some of the 11 established mining unions, which are white. Until recently, the government did not allow blacks to register trade unions. But even with that hindrance removed, experts say there is no indication blacks are organizing to any significant degree.
Some of the white unions, such as the Mine Surface Officials' Association of South Africa and the South African Electrical Workers' Association are trying to recruit blacks.
However, the powerful Mine Workers' Union has sharply criticized the opening of skilled jobs to blacks, claiming the commission's argument that there are not enough whites to fill those slots was merely a "pretext" for throwing the industry open to blacks.
While supporting removal of the race barrier in mining, the government has made clear that it would not act immediately on its own to amend legislation. It called on the employers and the trade unions to "take the initiative to reach a compromise within a reasonable period of time on other arrangements through negotiation and cooperation, having due regard to the government's objective."
Some here are critical of the government for not acting unilaterally, but instead asking the mining industry to change on its own. Others feel the government has acted boldly, making it clear if the industry does not act, the government will step in.
The commission also recommended a number of safeguards to ensure that whites are not simply replaced by lower-paid blacks for the same job. It insisted that standards of work be maintaned, the proficiency requirements for jobs be uniform , that pay be equal for the same job, that job security measures be incorporated into collective agreements, and that protection against racial "victimization" be provided for all groups.
In 1980, mining contributed 24 percent of South Africa's gross domestic product, and employed some 15 percent of the nonagricultural work force. Whereas 10 years ago some 70 percent of the mining labor force was imported, only 45 percent are now foreign laborers