Blacks urged to strike at S. African mines. Government, mining firms try to stem growing safety concerns
Johannesburg — South Africa's worst gold-mining accident ever has provoked a tide of anger and protest from black miners, unions, and political leaders. The company that runs the Kinross Mine where the disaster occurred, and the South African government, are taking steps to contain the outcry. Both have announced investigations into the causes of the underground fire, which left 177 people dead on Sept 16. A spokesman for the company, General Mining Union Corporation (Gencor), told The Monitor last week that it would give a paid day-off to miners who choose to participate in a symbolic stay-away called for Oct. 1.
The immediate focus of black protest has been working conditions and safety standards in the mining industry, which is the mainstay of South Africa's export economy. These issues have been raised repeatedly by union leaders before, but rarely with the intensity that was demonstrated last week.
In one instance, an angry mob of black workers disrupted a memorial service for the dead miners organized by Gencor early in the week. At a separate rally held by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the country's most powerful black union, antigovernment activist Winnie Mandela came close to advocating an open-ended mining strike, and repeated calls for an overhaul of the political system. ``The moment you stop digging their [the whites'] gold and their diamonds is the moment we shall be free,'' she told some 3,000 miners.
A general mining strike seems unlikely. The hundreds of thousands of black workers who provide most of South Africa's underground mine labor need their average $150-a-month paychecks badly. This is particularly true at a time when both South Africa and neighboring black states are in the grips of an unemployment crisis.
But the NUM has coupled demands for an overhaul of mine-safety policy, with its announcement of the one-day mine strike this Wednesday. In Soweto, the black township outside Johannesburg, some activists have begun encouraging a general stay-away that day in solidarity with the miners.
Gencor, initially dismissive of union allegations that it was negligent in its safety precautions at Kinross, has spoken in markedly different tones during the last week. The company says it is mounting a thorough investigation of what went wrong. Spokesman Harry Hill told The Monitor that ``a number of materials'' caught light and spewed noxious fumes during the accident, which was set off by a worker's blow torch.
Among these substances, he said, was a polyurethane sealant. South African newspapers have highlighted the fact that the use of similar products has been halted in both British and American mines in recent years when they were found to be a safety hazard.
Mr. Hill also said that a British expert on mine disasters, Herbert Eisner, would be allowed to visit Kinross sometime in the next few days. He had been invited to South Africa by the NUM and was earlier denied access to Kinross. At a news conference last week, Mr. Eisner said he felt it was inconceivable that Gencor, South Africa's second-largest mining firm, could have been unaware of the danger of the polyurethane product.
``The request for the visit,'' said Hill, ``came at a very bad time, immediately after the accident.'' Now, he added, ``We are about to finalize a date.''
The Kinross fire has dealt a blow to the mining companies' joint campaign during recent years to respond to black miners' charges that they are being both underpaid and subjected to unsafe labor conditions. Only days before the disaster, the country's Chamber of Mines released unprecedentedly low accident figures for the first part of 1986. Until Kinross, comments Hill, ``We were doing very well on safety issues.''
Worse, for the companies, the accident came amid the latest round of wage bargaining between the mining concerns and the NUM. The talks are now deadlocked.
Although the South African government is not directly involved in the dispute growing out of the Kinross fire, it, too, has felt its heat. Already facing overseas moves to impose economic sanctions, the government has been pelted with criticism from abroad concerning safety in the mines.
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.