An old miner once said: “Working in the mines is a painful thing. When you go down into the earth, you are not sure that you will come out alive. You don’t want to think about it. But it keeps coming. When an accident happens, you think of your family. You become very lonely. You feel you want to see them for the last time.”
“Death will come to you some time. Death is so real you pray and thank God each time you come out alive.”
Every year thousands of men leave their homes in the countryside. They go to work on the mines. Last year over 600 thousand men went to work on the mines in South Africa.
And every year over 2 500 men never see their homes again. They die in accidents under the ground. They die in accidents above the ground. And they die from diseases they get on the mines.
Many mineworkers are lucky. They do not die. But they face many other dangers. Over 15 thousand miners get hurt in accidents every year. Miners get all kinds of diseases. One out of five miners gets sick on the mines. And many mineworkers get assaulted by white miners.
And when a mineworker gets sick or hurt, his problems are not over. Many workers don’t get compensation. And when they do get compensation, they get very little.
Learn and Teach spoke to people about some of the problems on the mines. They told us about accidents, diseases, compensation and assaults.
ACCIDENTS ON THE MINES
Accidents are one of the biggest killers on the mines. The mines say they are trying to stop these accidents. But the number of workers that die every year stays the same. The number of deaths has not gone down in 20 years.
Learn and Teach spoke to the President of the National Union of Mineworkers. This is a new trade union for black mineworkers. The President of the union is Mr James Mohlatsi. He was a mineworker for 13 years. He is very worried about the accidents on the mines.
Mr Mohlatsi says most accidents happen because of rockbursts. He told Learn and Teach what happens in a rockburst. “You work deep underground. Sometimes you work over three kilometres under the ground. The tunnel is dark. The heat makes the sweat run off your back.
“Suddenly you hear a noise like thunder. The ground shakes. The rocks fall around you. Men run in every direction.”
“Then it all stops. The men come back. They look for the dead and injured miners. The miners who can scream get help first. The others lie under the rocks for a long time. After four days you find these men by the smell.”
Nobody knows why the rockbursts happen. The Chamber of Mines says all the mines are trying to stop these accidents. The Chamber of Mines is an organization of all the big mine owners.
Last year the Chamber of Mines spent 30 million rands to find ways to make the mines safer. The Chamber also has a competition for the mines. They give stars to mines that have few accidents. White shift bosses get extra pay when their workers have no accidents.
The government also sends inspectors to the mines. The inspectors check the mines. They make sure the mines follow the laws for safety.
Do the mines and the government do enough to protect mineworkers? Many people don’t think so. Learn and Teach spoke to Jack Curtis. He is a mining engineer. He has worked on the mines for 45 years. He says the mines and government can do more to stop accidents.
“Most mineworkers are black,” says Mr Curtis. “They do not have the vote. In other countries all workers can vote. They have strong trade unions to fight for them. So these workers have less accidents.”
Many workers say some inspectors in South Africa don’t do their job properly. Sometimes they are scared to go to the place of an accident. “The inspectors ask the mine bosses about the accidents,” says Mr Curtis. “They never listen to the black workers. So the mine bosses never get blamed for accidents. The last time the bosses got into trouble was in the Coalbrook accident in 1960. In that accident 405 coal miners died.”
Mr Curtis also says the mine bosses will rather use men instead of machines in dangerous places. “The mines can use machines in dangerous places,” says Mr Curtis. “But they don’t use machines because machines are expensive. The mines will rather pay compensation to the families of dead miners.”
The mine owners don’t agree with Mr Curtis. They say South African mines are very deep. They can’t put machines into all parts of the mine. And they say machines also make accidents. Many workers die In accidents with machines.
People argue why accidents happen. In the meantime workers still die. And every year the number of accidents does not go down.
Over 700 workers die every year from diseases they get on the mines. The coal mines are the worst mines. Nearly half the workers on coal mines get sick at work.
Some workers are already sick when they get to the mines. But the work on the mines make them more sick. Many workers are healthy when they get to the mines. But when they leave, they have diseases like TB and other diseases of the chest. Pneumonia TB and heart disease are the biggest killers on the mines.
Most mine workers are contract workers. They live and work far away from home. These men are often lonely. They drink a lot of liquor. The liquor damages their bodies.
Many women sell their bodies to men on the mines. These women are called prostitutes. The miners often get diseases from these women.
Migrant workers also worry a lot. They worry about their families and homes. The worry makes them sick. They get diseases like high blood pressure.
The mines give the workers good medical treatment. They check the miners carefully when they come to the mines. And they look after the miners when they are at the mines.
But many miners leave the mines sick. Some doctors say the mines do not check the workers properly when they leave. “The law says we must check miners properly before they go home:'” says one mine doctor. “But we do not give these miners proper check-ups. We don’t give them full check-ups like we do when they first come.”
Some doctors say the mines only worry about some diseases. They only worry about diseases that make a worker weak at work. They do not worry about diseases like VD, drinking and worry.
“White miners often assault black miners. And often nothing happens to the white miners,” says James Mohlatsi from the trade union.
“A black worker sweats for 10 hours underground. When a white miner assaults him, he must go and report to the compound manager. But sometimes he must wait for three hours before he can see the compound manager. So often workers are too tired to report assauIts.”
The Chamber of Mines know about the assaults. “Assaults do happen,” says a man from the Chamber. “And many workers don’t report the assaults. The Chamber knows about this problem. We are trying to stop it. “
“But only a strong trade union can stop these assaults,” says Mr Mohlatsi. “The National Union of Mineworkers will fight to protect workers from these assaults.”
Last year a newspaper told the story of Swazi Siktshana. Swazi comes from the Transkei. He worked on a mine. He hurt his leg in an accident. The doctors cut his leg off.
The mines gave Swazi R 1 000 compensation and sent him home. Swazi was not happy. He was still young. The money would not last. He wanted to work.
Today Swazi’s compensation money is finished. Swazi lives with his wife and child. They are struggling to stay alive. Swazi has little hope of finding a job.
“Compensation for accidents is one of the biggest problems workers complain about,” says Mr Mohlatsi. “Workers say they don’t get enough compensation. And they must wait for a long time to get this money. Nobody ever tells the workers about their compensation rights.”
A mine doctor agreed that compensation is a big problem. For example, under half the people who must get compensation for chest diseases get their money. The doctor blamed the mines. He said the mines don’t manage compensation properly. And they don’t employ enough people to work with compensation.
Black miners don’t get very much compensation for accidents. The mines pay each worker differently. Workers who get high wages get more compensation. And workers who get low wages get less compensation.
The mines pay workers compensation for certain diseases. But they give less to black workers. For example. a black miner with TB will get R895. A white miner with TB will get R7 454.
“The mines do pay black and white workers differently for diseases.” says a mine doctor. “But we have just finished writing a report. The report asks the mines to pay workers the same compensation for diseases. If the mines listen to the report, they will pay white and black workers the same in about two years time.”
If a mineworker or mineworker’s family has problems with compensation, they can ask the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) for help. The address is:
5th Floor Lekto
n House 5 Wanderers Street P.O. Box 10928 JOHANNESBURG 2000 Phone. (011) 29 – 4561