Tragedy, in the form of leaping flames and toxic fumes, has focused new public attention on the grit that underlies the glitter of South Africa's gold industry. Most of the blacks who dig gold at Kinross last saw their families months ago, when they left for a year of underground sweat and dormitory living -- for an average income of $150 a month. Now, after Tuesday's fire, at least 170 of these men will never see their families again.
The accident in a mine at the Kinross Gold Field, owned by the General Mining Union Corporation, comes at a time of unprecedented industry strides. Under pressure from the country's most powerful black trade union, efforts have been made to improve the lot of the black migrant workers who dig most of South Africa's gold. Only a few days ago, it was announced that there had been a record-low number of fatal mining accidents for the first six months of this year.
By nightfall yesterday, rescue workers had reported more than 175 deaths in the aftermath of the blaze at Kinross, some 60 miles east of here. The tragedy is the worst in the history of the country's gold industry. Almost all of the casualties were black migrant workers. At least five whites were also reported killed.
The government immediately announced that there would be an investigation into the cause of the fire, which broke out nearly a mile under the earth's surface. But the head of the National Union of Mine Workers, who visited Kinross yesterday, issued a statement criticizing labor conditions at the mine. ``This disaster,'' said the NUM statement, ``takes us back to the dark ages, and demonstrates clearly the unnacceptably low safety standards practiced in the South African mining industry.'' A spokesman for Kinross Gold Mine said it was unclear whether there had been negligence.
The creation of the NUM, in itself the most important change in the gold workers' lot, stems from the government's 1979 landmark move to legalize black trade unions. In recent years, the union and gold companies have conducted an array of negotiations that have improved wages and work conditions.
Because of its large membership of 150,000 the union commands considerable leverage in a nation where gold provides nearly half of South Africa's yearly export earnings. Last year, South Africa accounted for about 55 percent of the noncommunist world gold sales, earning some $7 billion in the process.
But tension between laborers and management runs deep. Much of it is a result of racial divisions ingrained in the industry over decades. The symbol of these divisions is the system of ``job reservation,'' which defines who can perform each of some 1,000 separate categories of mine work. The system assuages white miners' fears that they will be pushed out of work by cheaper black labor.
Job reservation is being phased out. The present government has vowed to scrap the remaining 13 categories reserved for whites -- though it failed to do so in this year's session of Parliament, as originally announced.
The system's legacy is apt to remain for years to come. At a conference on gold mining here this week, a white-union leader lamented that one effect of job reservation has already been to ensure growth of mine-labor unions on racial grounds. ``We are heading for a situation,'' he said, ``in which the mining industry and its labor force have become polarized on the issue of race.''
While the explicit effect of the system has become negligible, the least skilled and least well-paid jobs in the mines are still performed mostly by blacks. Most come, on contract, from the tribal homelands inside South Africa, or from neighboring countries.
Amid poverty and raging unemployment in black rural areas, the average monthly wage of $150 is sufficient to attract a huge force of migrants to dig gold. Industry management, meanwhile, has begun bringing some blacks into positions previously ``reserved'' for whites. There have been efforts, too, to improve migrants' living conditions. At Kinross, the hostels are now adorned with a coat of ocher paint. Absent are the security fences that once were a hallmark of mining hostels.
Still, the mines simmer with frustration. The labor relations adviser to the industry's Chamber of Mines told attendees of this week's conference that while management was indeed making great efforts to improve the lot of mine workers, ``The most important breakthrough has eluded us. That is to make it possible for all races to be trained for, and appointed to, all production jobs.''
This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit reporters from being ``within sight'' of any unrest, any ``restricted gathering,'' or any ``police actions''; from reporting on arrests made under the emergency regulations; and from relaying information deemed subversive.