The immutable politics of South African gold


CARLETONVILLE, South Africa -- The foundation of the South African economy is a narrow stratum of gold-bearing rock that breaks the surface near Johannesburg, then heads down into the Earth.

Deeper and deeper it goes, and, for more than a century, millions of black men have been sent down after it, their labor vastly enriching thousands of whites and providing those who built apartheid with a foundation for racial separation.

A year after the country's first democratic elections, the industry has proved peculiarly resistant to change. Blacks still perform the manual labor deep underground. Virtually all of the managers are whites. But President Nelson Mandela's government is unlikely to do anything that would jeopardize an industry that provides more than 300,000 jobs -- however dangerous and low-paid.

That is not what Mr. Mandela had envisioned. For decades, his African National Congress spoke of plans to nationalize the mines, the better to gain control of the country's enormous underground wealth. But gold mining is governed by forces -- both geologic and economic -- that politics has not touched.

Gold is inextricably woven into the tapestry of South Africa's past and present. The discovery near Johannesburg in 1886 of the most extensive gold deposits in the world altered the country's status from that of an agrarian way station to an industrial power.

Gold production still accounts for 5 percent of South Africa's economy, and the price per ounce is reported hourly on the radio news along with the time and temperature.

But South Africa's political revolution has barely touched the mines.

"Since the election, there has been no significant change," said Vincent Mokoena, 53, who has worked at a gold mine for 35 years and makes about $260 a month. "I thought it would be a good change, but most unfortunately not."

The miner's life is difficult. The majority of those employed in the industry live in hostels -- company towns in which everyone is male, black and living in fenced-in dormitories sprawled around the towers that mark the mine shafts.

The miners have created their own culture in those hostels, including distinct forms of dancing in the rubber boots worn underground and singing in intense competitions that produced the style popularized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. And the mines have generated their own language -- fanakalo, a mixture of several African languages and Afrikaans.

Life in the 'city of gold'

"Living like this, all these people in one room, that is not nice," said Elliot Shabangu, a soft-spoken father of five from Swaziland. "I think what I would like is to stay together with my family. Because now, staying here, I do not know what is happening with them."

Mr. Shabangu was sitting in the room he shares at Hostel No. 9, home to 3,500 workers at the mine called Western Deep Levels. He is 36 and has worked at Western Deep for 17 years. Most of his earnings of about $500 a month are sent home to his family.

His hostel is better than most. It's clean and kept in good repair. Each room sleeps five; in the past, there could have been a barracks-like room housing 50. There's an area where families can stay for two-week visits, but most of the men see their wives and children only once or twice a year.

Western Deep is 45 miles west of Johannesburg, the city that sprang up next to the first diggings 110 years ago. In Zulu it is "Egoli," the "city of gold." Its most distinctive topographic features, piles of mine tailings.

Western Deep, owned by Anglo American Corp., the largest of South Africa's mining companies, is the deepest mine in the world, with shafts sunk 2 1/4 miles. On any given day, there are some 21,000 people in those shafts, an underground city reached by elevator and underground train.

The closer to the working face, the more primitive the conditions. The ceiling is no more than 4 feet high, the air hot and humid. All around are criss-crossed stacks of logs, shoring up the rocks against the mile or more of earth pressing down.

Workers spend their day here cutting holes in the gold-bearing TTC rock with water-powered drills. Dynamite goes into the holes. After the day shift, the dynamite is detonated electronically. The much smaller night shift removes the loosened rock. Ore is raised to the surface and crushed and treated chemically to free the gold -- somewhat more than one ounce from every four tons of rock.

The day shift comes in, and the cycle begins again.

For this, a black worker's starting wage is about $200 a month. After years of service, and if the worker moves into a semi-skilled job, the amount might triple. The mining companies also provide lodging in the hostels and food.

It was the mining industry that promoted the idea of using blacks as temporary workers, migrants who would stay in a compound, segregated according to tribe, and be employed only as long as the permanent, white residents wanted their labor. South Africa's black townships, built to provide labor for the white cities, are the direct descendants of the mine compounds.

There was a color bar that determined worker advancement: Only whites were allowed in the so-called "skilled" jobs, for which the pay was much higher.

Though the mine owners fought the color bar through the years -- mainly to reduce their expenses -- it began to crumble a decade ago.

John Sematle was a member of one of the first groups of black laborers to train for the position of miner, in 1989. A "miner" supervises several teams of workers and possesses a blasting certificate, certifying that a person can handle dynamite.

"At the beginning, the whites were not satisfied with us," Mr. Sematle said. "They didn't think we understood how to handle the job. We were not treated right. They used abusive language.

"But now that has changed. I am not afraid of anybody. I don't have to call them master or baas."

Indeed, last year's election has brought a subtle shift in spirit. Whites at the mines began to realize that change was inevitable and to accept it. Blacks began to speak up for themselves and seek advancement. Now Mr. Sematle's salary is about $1,000 a month, and he can double that, depending on how much rock his workers dynamite.

With higher-paying jobs, blacks eventually can afford to leave the hostels, to buy homes, to bring their families to the mines -- finally to dismantle this ancestor of apartheid.

But while the color bar has been dismantled, mining authorities have imposed educational requirements -- barriers reminiscent of the literacy tests used to keep blacks from voting in the American South.

"I remember when we first started to negotiate about this, 10 years ago," said Marcel Golding, a former executive in the National Union of Mineworkers and now a member of Parliament from the African National Congress. "They said that to become a miner, not only did you need to be fluent in Afrikaans and English and have [10th-grade] education, you also had to have national security clearance since you would handle dynamite."

The new government has lowered the education requirement to seventh grade, but that is still far above the level achieved by most of the workers. Anglo American can point to impressive adult education programs at Western Deep -- hundreds of men, basically illiterate, are paid to go to school full time for up to three months -- but the programs reach only a small fraction of the work force.

And even if all of the workers acquired the required education, there are not that many well-paying jobs available.

"The whites who hold those jobs are not going anywhere," said Wilmot James, director of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, who has written extensively on the mine industry. "What you have to remember is that mining is a shrinking industry, not an expanding one."

The bottom line

In the end, it is the bottom line that prevents extensive change in the industry. Mining low-grade ore deep underground is labor-intensive. If labor were not cheap, the mines would close.

"The mining industry now has to be looked at in an international context," said Mr. Golding, the former union official. "We have to take into account gold found near the surface in other parts of the world that can be mined much more cheaply."

One change the industry insists upon is a reduction in the number of paid holidays, though the government has insisted on increasing the number of holidays to 12, from four. But the industry argues that continuous production could save millions of dollars, helping to keep marginal operations going.

But these are small scratches in gold mining's margins.

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