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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

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5. The mining industry, migrant labour and hostels

Introduction

The connection between the mining industry and the establishment of the migrant labour system is a historically accepted fact. The detrimental consequences of the system on migrant labourers and their families, as well as the rural communities from which they are recruited, are well documented and are an irrefutable historical fact. In this regard we refer specifically to work done by Professor Francis Wilson and Dr Mamphele Ramphele. We also refer to various commissions of enquiries that have investigated violence and living conditions on mines. The latest of these commissions being the Commission of Inquiry into Safety and Health in the Mining Industry chaired by Judge RN Leon (July 1994) and the Commission of Inquiry into violence on three Goldfields Mines chaired by Justice J Myburgh (20 September 1996). In these inquiries it was totally accepted that the migrant labour system and hostels were undesirable and that they were also factors that have contributed to violence between workers on mines.

The Leon Commission deals with the Chamber of Mines (COM), and the influence of the migratory labour system which led to the establishment of compounds and hostels.

According to the report, the Chamber was formed over 100 years ago. It is a voluntary association of private sector mining finance houses, mining companies and mines. It has over 80 members drawn from South Africa's gold, coal, diamond, platinum, antinomy, asbestos, manganese, lead and copper mining sections. The members account for approximately 85% of the mineral output of South Africa.

The Chamber's primary functions are described as being to promote and protect the interests of its members, doing this through joint action, at industrial level in areas where it is considered by the Chamber to be economically beneficial, prudent and desirable for members to co-operate and act in concert. It operates through a range of committees on which sit representatives of the major finance houses and mining companies and at which policy agreements are arrived at. The Commission heard and accepted Professor Wilson's evidence on the historical perspective concerning the employment of labour in South African mines (see Annexure 15).

The Commission recognizes that a central feature of the gold mining industry is an oscillating migratory labour system. The Commission further recognizes that, from the point of view of the migrant worker, he is divided in half as a human being. That is: a labour unit working at a mine and a family man with his family in the rural areas.

1     The report states that as early as 1890, when the Chamber was formed, mining compounds were established to control labour and the Chamber established recruiting agencies. At that time one of the Chamber's primary functions was stated to be "to reduce native wages to a reasonable level because they wanted to prevent competition", and to find ways and means of recruiting labour. This led to the establishment of a whole process of migrant labour from all over the sub-continents. By 1889, 100 000 black mineworkers were needed on the mines and, at the time, 60% of the labour came from outside South Africa, mainly from Mozambique.

The report points out that, at the same time, white mineworkers fought for the "colour bar", which was implemented by the mines. Significantly, the Commission states categorically that the Chamber played a specific role in putting in place the pass laws which played a critical role in manning the migrant labour system for over 100 years. From the employer's point of view, it was necessary to try to ensure a regular supply of labour at wages which the mining industry felt reasonable. That these were slave wages cannot be denied by any human being with any sense of integrity. In this regard, the Commission quotes Cecil John Rhodes when introducing legislation in support of an argument for the imposition of a hut tax in order to force people living in the rural areas to seek work in the mines:

"You will remove them, the natives, from the life of sloth and laziness, you will teach them the dignity of labour, and make them contribute to the prosperity of the State and give them some good return for our wise and good Government."

2     The Commission accepted that the mining industry was locked into the migrant labour system which gave it a control over the labour force so that there was no question of strikes, which were illegal, and there was dominance of management over labour. By 1910, workers were being recruited from all over Southern Africa but far from Johannesburg itself.

3     he migrancy situation was dramatically changed in 1974 when Malawi banned further recruiting of workers as a result of an air crash which killed Malawian mineworkers. In the same month, there was a political coup in Portugal which led to the independence of Angola and Mozambique. The Chamber was faced with a loss of 50% of its labour force from Malawi and Mozambique. The Commission accepts that, from then on, there was a rapid increase in wages which could be attributed, inter alia, to a rise in the influence of trade unions.

4     As with many other employers who paid "lip-service" to the opposition of apartheid while enjoying its fruits, the Commission noted that, even today, with the apartheid system ended, there exists a hangover from that system in the mining industry, whereby in the main, black workers are at the bottom of the organisational pyramid while white workers are further up. In this regard, the Commission further noted that job reservation for whites was formally abolished only in 1986.

Enter the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)

NUM vs The Chamber of Mines

5     The NUM was formed in 1982 and represents approximately 300 000 members in the mining industry. It is the largest recognized collective bargaining agent representing workers in the mining industry and its membership constitutes approximately 60% of the workforce. The Commission noted that the NUM has always made health and safety issues a central theme of its campaign and of its negotiations with employers. This aspect is dealt with elsewhere in this paper. Some of its efforts are described in its submission entitled "Eight Thousand Ways to Die". The NUM grew out of the need to change the inhuman and barbaric conditions under which workers lived on the mines. In this regard the Commission accepted Professor Wilson's opinion, which was not seriously challenged, that the rise of the NUM had brought about the biggest single change in the mining industry. It had introduced different priorities into the collective bargaining system, with a major priority being family life and family housing. The NUM fought bitter and brutal struggles against the mines in order to represent the rights and interests of workers. Mine management, on the other hand, utilized to the fullest apartheid legislation, the might of the apartheid state, private mine security, UWUSA / UMIWUSA and scab labour in an attempt to crush the NUM.

The compound / hostel system

6     The Commission concluded that the compound/hostel system is unnatural. Indeed, we challenge any one of the Chamber of Mines and its members to make excuses for the appalling conditions to which they subjected migrant labourers. We further challenge them to refute our assertion that the changes to improve conditions thus far have amounted to too little, too late. We note also the trite fact that not a single white mine employee ever had to reside in these hostels.

The Commission stated that the hostel system has an adverse effect on the health and well-being of its occupants. Too many people living together in a small space with inadequate ventilation must inevitably increase the spread of disease. The Commission accepted Professor Wilson's evidence that single sex hostels remained an aberration, whether they housed 19 to a room, as some of the old compounds used to do, or 8 or 12 to a room as the more modern hostels do. Although the quality of life is relatively better, hostels still contribute to the spread of tuberculosis and HIV-related diseases. Stress and strain of a psychological nature is also involved. There is a lack of privacy and husbands are separated from their wives and children.

The Commission accepted and summarized the evidence of Mr Senzeni Zokwana, the NUM deputy president, which illustrated the problems of living in hostels. According to him, there has never been any recognition of the needs of people of differing ages. He had lived in a hostel room shared by 16 people, with bunks stacked on top of each other. This created many problems. Someone might arrive drunk and in the middle of the night go out to relieve a call of nature. On returning, he might step on his neighbour in the lower bunk. If one person in the room suffers from a contagious disease, the whole room is affected. The lack of privacy meant that, if a wife came to stay, there was very limited accommodation for her. Hostel life estranges the husband from his family. Allocation of rooms and bunks is without reference to the age of the individual, which may lead to a 60-year old man having to use an upper bunk and having great difficulty in getting in and out of bed. Workers had no choice of who they should share rooms with, and are simply allocated their bunks. Apart from the obvious risk of air-borne infection of tuberculosis or pneumonia, people required to live under these conditions are affected by a wide range of psychological and other factors.

The Commission heard the description of Mr Zokwana's humiliation by the procedures that he was subjected to when he first became a miner at President Steyn Goldmine, where he had worked for 14 years.

Mr Zokwana testified about the use of the mining language, Fanagalo. Although he spoke both English and Afrikaans, he was obliged to speak in Fanagalo when he took up employment at the mines. Instead of addressing persons or mine officials as "Mr" or "Meneer", he was required to use the Fanagalo expression, "Baas". Workers found this offensive, as did the Commission. In this regard, we wish to refer the TRC to an English–to-Fanagalo dictionary published by the Chamber, which was revised in 1985 and printed as recently as 1990 and which defines a miner as "Baas".

The divide and rule tactic in terms of which workers were accommodated on an ethnic basis is well documented and has been dealt with in various commissions of inquiry, including the Myburgh Commission. This policy has also been recognized as a factor which has significantly contributed to mine violence. In the late 1980's and in the 1990's, this has manifested itself in the accommodation of workers on the basis of union affiliation. There are a number of examples where violence arose between different hostel blocks housing NUM members and UWUSA / UMUWUSA and/or IFP supporting workers. These examples include the three Goldfields Mines which gave rise to the Myburgh Inquiry and Deelkraal Mine, which resulted in a private inquiry in 1995.

The Leon Commission found inter alia that the adverse health effects of the conditions under which workers live extended well beyond the facts of the physical surroundings. In an attempt to adapt to what are by any standards an adverse set of social circumstances, it is inevitable that a proportion of the hostel population will adopt behaviour which is damaging to their health. This may include drinking excessive amounts of alcohol which is still available at subsidized prices or the establishment of alternative domestic arrangements to compensate for the absence of spouse and children. Violence leading to frequent off the job assaults and accidents, or an elevated incidence of sexually transmitted diseases are obvious examples. The latter is of particular significance, as sexually transmitted diseases which lead to genital ulceration predispose to the acquisition of HIV infection. The commission found that this illustrates the complex inter-relationship between working and living conditions and the fact that labour policy and the health of workers cannot be compartmentalised.

The Commission noted that the evidence of Professor Wilson must be read in its entirety to understand the migrant labour system, its fundamental and pervasive adverse effects, and the role the mining industry has played in developing the system.

Ethnically based recruitment policy

7     The Oxford Dictionary defines racism as the "belief in, adherence to, or advocacy of" the theory that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, qualities, etc., specific to that race, especially distinguishing it as an inferior or superior to another race.

8     The mining industry indulged and continues to indulge in the practice of recruiting workers on the basis of skills attributed to their particular ethnic group. This was made manifestly clear at the Myburgh Commission when cross examination of managers of the mines concerned, as well as of the executive director of Goldfields of South Africa Limited, Alan Hector Munro, dealt with recruitment policy based on ethnic diversity. In his affidavit (see Annexure 16), Munro asserts that some of the main reasons for Goldfields recruitment policy are the following:

An understanding that many rural areas around the sub-continent have become dependent over the century upon their inhabitants being able to find employment in the mining industry and so be able to send back economic support to those areas. In other words, there is a commitment to equity in providing economic support to a wide range of primarily rural areas in the sub-continent;

A need to ensure that mines are not over-dependant on labour drawn from one particular area of recruitment, bearing in mind that the interruption of the supply of labour from that area could then have serious consequences for the mine. In particular, this was deemed important prior to 1994, when the relationships between South Africa and its neighbouring states (and indeed the so-called "homelands") were volatile;

The fact that, over the years, various ethnic groups appeared to have made certain aspects of mine labour their own in terms of skills. For example, it is well accepted in the industry that persons from Lesotho are skilled in shaft-sinking activities, and this leads employers to direct recruiting efforts accordingly; and

A belief, founded on many years of experience within the mining industry, that no single ethnic group should be able to dominate the others by sheer force of numbers, as this had, in the past, led to conflict and power struggles. A measure of clarity and numerical strength is therefore necessary in the recruitment strategy.

Under cross-examination by Mr Raditapole on behalf of the NUM, it was revealed that according to Goldfields:

Basotho people from Lesotho excelled in the art of shaft sinking;

the Zulu-speaking people are excellent in production sections, like the Swazi's, in drilling machines. Both categories of people are also very good about operating percussion machines;

the Xhosa's excelled in smelting operations and running furnaces. They were also good at doing operating jobs such as driving locos and operating scoop trams;

the Tswana's skills did not immediately come to mind;

the Shangaans (people from Mozambique) are very good mechanical people.

The above analysis is then concluded not to be an exact science, but to be a culture.

5.24 According to Munro's affidavit, Zulu persons had not traditionally been employed in the mining industry primarily for perceived cultural reasons relating to working underground. It was therefore necessary to introduce these persons slowly to the concept of working underground.

9     On this aspect, Munro concludes that the policies of recruitment from various ethnic origins which are applied within the Goldfields Group are based on sound economic principles and with a view to stability, both on mines and in the rural communities from which they have historically drawn employees.

The use of homeland legislation

The National Union of Mineworkers in Bophuthatswana

Bophuthatswana's major mineral deposits are of platinum. These are mined by two major mining complexes: Impala Platinum Mines and Rustenburg Platinum Mines.

Impala Platinum Mines (Implats) mined exclusively in Bophuthatswana and in 1991 employed approximately 43 000 workers in its operations. Its holding company was then Genmin (General Mines - now Gencor), one of the six mining houses that dominate the South African mining industry.

Rustenburg Platinum (Rusplats), on the other hand, is located in both Bophuthatswana and South Africa, with its workforce of some 30 000. Its holding company is Johannesburg Consolidated Investments, another of South Africa's six mining houses.

The history and patterns of trade union organisation at these two massive mining complexes reveal the destructive impact of Bophuthatswana labour legislation on freedom of association and the development of orderly collective bargaining.

In 1986, 25 000 employees were dismissed for striking at Impala Platinum. The strike was caused by a range of factors all integrally linked to freedom of association. These related to the right of employees to organise themselves into trade unions of their own choice; the victimisation and dismissal of employees who had joined the National Union of Mineworkers; and the inability of employees to play any role in determining their conditions of employment.

A central demand at Impala Platinum had been for the recognition of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as their collective bargaining agent. The mine management consistently refused to recognise the union as Bophuthatswana legislation      prohibited it from doing so.

NUM had a signed-up membership of more than 27 000 workers at Implats. This membership had been verified by the Impala Platinum management.

In contrast, the Bophuthatswana National Union of Mine Employees (BONUME), which was registered for the mining industry in accordance with Bophuthatswana legislation, had little worker support. Approximately 3 000 workers at Implats were members of BONUME.

In 1991 there was a recurrence of widespread strike action at Impala Platinum. Again, the cause of the strikes lay in the statutory prohibition on the mine being able to recognise the NUM as the collective bargaining representative of its employees. At times, the entire workforce of over 40 000 was involved in strikes.

A number of strikes at Impala Platinum occurred in November 1991. Between 35 000 and 40 000 employees participated in these strikes. Again, the cause of the strikes were a set of factors all of which impact upon collective bargaining. These were:

The demand for the employees' chosen collective bargaining representative, the NUM, to be recognised by management;

The demand that the dismissal of some 400 workers dismissed for involvement in an underground sit-in be referred to independent arbitration as the Bophuthatswana legislation did not provide the means for dismissed employees to challenge the fairness of their dismissal.

A protest against the extensive and continued harassment, detention and torture of NUM members by officials of the Bophuthatswana security forces.

Workers returned to work at Implats without management accepting the demands for trade union recognition or for the disputed dismissals to be referred to arbitration. The possibility of the union and the mine reaching some arrangement to establish agreed collective bargaining and dispute resolution structures at the mine was hampered by the uncertainty as to the state of labour legislation in Bophuthatswana. The mine's management was adamant in its refusal to refer the dispute concerning the dismissals to arbitration.

During the strike, the Bophuthatswana security forces engaged in widespread assaults and detention of mineworkers. On 14 November 1991, the Central Workers Committee of Impala Platinum obtained a Supreme Court order ordering the immediate release from detention of 17 of its members. Several of these detainees made allegations of assault and torture of detainees at the hands of the Bophuthatswana security forces.

Rustenburg Platinum

10     As the Rustenburg Platinum operations extended beyond the South African border into Bophuthatswana, Bophuthatswana labour law created an additional set of difficulties.

Rusplats recognised NUM as representatives of workers employed on the South African side of the border, but refused to recognise it in respect of those workers employed in Bophuthatswana.

The range of problems created by this situation included:

Employees on the South African side were able to participate in the determination of the terms of employment through collective bargaining. On the other hand, those in Bophuthatswana were unable to do so. The mine management refused to disclose to NUM the terms on which employees in the Bophuthatswana side of the mine were employed;

There were no structures for the resolution of collective disputes or for collective bargaining in Bophuthatswana and management endeavoured to foist unrepresentative committee structures on employees there;

Active union members employed on the South African side were transferred to Bophuthatswana, thus frustrating trade union organisation on the South African side.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.