South Africa confronts mine risks

Last week's gold mine disaster in Orkney again raises concerns over

It was a drama that gripped the nation: Rescue workers clawed their way through more than 400 tons of fallen rock last week to save nine miners trapped thousands of feet below ground for almost four days.

Hundreds of rescue workers and mining officials broke into jubilant cheers as the ninth survivor was pulled to safety early Friday at African Rainbow Minerals in Orkney, 100 miles south of Johannesburg.

But yesterday - as rescuers continued the search for two seriously injured men and the bodies of four others confirmed dead - the spotlight shifted to the dismal safety record in South Africa's gold mines.

"The lives of workers are not considered paramount when it comes to going into these mines," Tony Ehrenreich of the Congress of South African Trade Unions said in an interview. "The deciding factor is the pursuit of profit."

He joined other union leaders and distraught miners' relatives in calling upon mine executives to reassess how they do business.

South Africa is home to some of the deepest and most dangerous mines on earth. More than 70,000 workers (almost all of them black) have lost their lives since gold provoked a boom here at the start of the last century.And, despite post-apartheid improvements in safety laws, hundreds of men are still killed every year - 313 in 1999 alone.

This latest incident occurred at the site of one of the country's worst mine disasters, the very shaft where 104 men were crushed to death in 1995 by an underground locomotive. That accident sparked a national outcry and lengthy inquiries, but, as recently as last October, the country's largest gold company conceded safety standards are still lagging.

"If they were up to scratch, these accidents would not happen," Anglo-Gold spokesman James Duncan said in the wake of another fatal accident last year.

The Orkney miners were trapped 6,900 feet below the earth's surface last Monday after they entered an old tunnel to prepare it for fresh "pillar mining" - the high-risk practice of extracting the last bits of gold from support structures in previously abandoned mines.

A small seismic tremor brought the rock roof crashing down upon the men. "We were terrified," miner Hlapane Julius Lefielo recalled as he and his comrades faced journalists last Friday in blue hospital gowns. "We were praying in our hearts for God to get us out."

The men endured agonizing days in 104 degree heat, surrounded by total darkness and the anguished cries of injured comrades. Rescuers were forced to wriggle through a passageway no more than 20 inches high at some points, removing the rubble rock by rock.

This week, industry officials are taking pains to point out that the number of mining fatalities has dropped dramatically since the days of apartheid, when up to 700 gold workers were killed in a single year.

While 424 miners died on the job in 1997, 372 deaths were reported in 1998 - and last year's fatality rate was lower yet. Still, the National Union of Mine workers remains concerned.

"The mining industry hasn't yet spent the money and time to make sure that workers are being trained to understand that the slightest mistake underground can cost him his life," said union head James Motlatsi.

The Ministry of Minerals and Energy says 75 percent of the fatalities can be blamed on lack of caution, inadequate inspection, and failure to comply with procedures.

"What a tragedy," one local TV presenter commented in a broadcast about the Orkney disaster."All this so we can have jewelry and look pretty."

The underlying question seemed to be: Is gold really worth it? That is not a theme many dare to ponder in South Africa. Johannesburg's sole reason for existence is the massive reef of gold that was discovered underneath its streets in 1886.

The shiny metal turned this country into the richest and most powerful economy in Africa and, to this day, radio newscasters provide hourly updates of spot bullion price.

Even after recent price drops and thousands of layoffs, the industry employs some 250,000 people. No one, not even the miners said to face a 1 in 3 risk of being injured on the mine, doubt the value of those jobs in a country where 40 percent of the labor force is unemployed.

"I can never stop going underground," explained Mr. Lefielo, who has a wife and children living in the neighboring country of Lesotho. "This is my life. It is the way I care for my family."

For generations, rural villages in Lesotho, Mozambique and Malawi have sent their young men to work in South Africa's mines. As many as 10 extended-family members survive on a miner's salary of as little as $150 a month.

Outsiders often feel sympathy for men who toil in darkness and live amid foul smells in overcrowded hostels. But, back home, miners are considered kings of the community.

Little boys grow up dreaming of work in the mines. When they get there, many receive just 14 days of training.

A tour of the massive West Driefontein gold mine outside Johannesburg gives visitors a sense of the danger that workers face as a matter of daily routine. The gate slams shut on the miner's cage and stomachs flip as it rattles down the shaft at 15 yards per second. Heat hits. Lungs labor. There are naked light bulbs, piles of discarded lumber, dangling ropes and laminated posters leaning against the wall: "Near Miss Today. Accident Tomorrow."

Part of the problem is that South Africa's gold is embedded deep below the ground in hard quartzite, making it more difficult and dangerous to extract than gold that sits close to the surface of competing North American mines.

Here, it takes one ton of ore - enough rocks to fill three bathtubs - to produce an eight-ounce nugget of gold, no larger than a tooth. At these depths, a mild tremor of magnitude 0.5 can equal the force of 220 pounds of explosives.

Miner John Monde Dike reflects the philosophy of many. "I do not think about dying," he explains, watching survivors of the Orkney disaster from a hospital hallway. "I think about my money and my family. I couldn't do the job otherwise."

But Mr. Motlatsi, the union boss, says South Africa has a long way to go before its mines can be considered safe. In particular, the controversial practice of exploiting old mines needs to be reexamined.

Yet, Motlasi took some small comfort last week in seeing the national attention roused by rescue efforts at Orkney.

"Fifteen years ago, black miners were not treated like human beings. At least now, the country cares."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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