Miners deserve to share profit

2011-08-27 15:35

Those of us who grew up in mining towns witnessed first-hand how the industry exploited black labour for little or no reward.

When I was growing up in Phalaborwa, the Palaborwa Mining Company (PMC) stood tall in the community as the main employer.

My grandmother Sophie Mabe was the first African woman to work at the mines in Phalaborwa in 1966.

Almost every second household had someone working at the nearby copper mines.

At the crack of dawn every day, our neighbour Mr Malatji blew “nakana” (the little horn) that woke those who toiled at the mine.

This he did voluntarily, the work of someone whose world revolved around the mine.

Mr Malatji, my grandmother and many other breadwinners in our community played no small part in ensuring that the PMC processing plants produced more than 2.7?million tons of copper, making it a very significant mine in the production of copper in South Africa.

Most of the arguments advanced against mine nationalisation so far are yet to deal with the legacy of the mining industry, an industry that has thrived for more than a century.

For instance, the impact of mining and the migrant labour system on black African families, such as fatherless families and child-headed households, is a subject still to be thoroughly researched by social scientists.

However, from anecdotal evidence, the industry clearly decimated the nucleus of the traditional African family, leaving fractures that will be felt for generations to come.

The mining industry unashamedly colluded with the apartheid government to force healthy, strong Africans to leave behind their rural comforts by imposing heavy taxes and limiting their ownership of livestock and farming land.

The industry would then herd the cheap black labour into single-sex hostels, leading to a myriad of social problems.

This misery was never visited upon white mineworkers, who were housed in formal structures where they could stay with their families.

To understand our mining community, you need to look at how the minerals came to be, and where these minerals originated from.

According to Southafrica.com, approximately two million years ago violent volcanic eruptions gave rise to a rich area of minerals known as the Palabora Igneous Complex.

The ore body contains a unique collection of minerals, namely: phosphates, uranium, nickel, magnetite, silver, gold, palladium, platinum, zirconium and, of course, copper. These minerals are located on a small hill called Loolekop.

It is not unreasonable to expect the exploitation of these rich minerals, which is the heritage of all native people of South Africa, to benefit all those born on the land.

However, this has not been the reality in Phalaborwa and elsewhere in South Africa where minerals were discovered. Although the Phalaborwa area is rich in a variety of minerals, the primary product of the PMC is copper.

This mineral is key to many facets of the industrial life of any country. Copper cables move trains, they connect telecommunication lines and they transmit electricity.

After the slump in the global financial markets, copper has again become a key mineral due to the developments in China and India, without which the advancement of these countries would be arrested.

For such an important metal, you would expect those who dig the earth for this crucial mineral to reap the benefits.

But, alas, that is not the case. While our copper inheritance sustains and improves the lives of those in Asian countries and others, the mineworkers and their communities are left poorer.

It is yet to be tested whether the laws of this country can impose on those who exploit the mineral resource heritage to think beyond their extraction and seek to establish other industries to sustain the livelihood of their communities before the minerals expire.

The mining companies have the luxury of closing down their operations and leaving the area as soon as the mineral ore has been exhausted.

Not so the people left behind, who often have very limited means to participate in other areas of the economy.

The call for mine nationalisation as proposed by the ANC Youth League is in part an acknowledgement that it is only when the democratic state is fully involved in the exploitation of minerals that all citizens can realise economic freedom.

Properly understood and interpreted, greater state ownership of the mines signals the beginning of sunrise for the next generation.

There has never been an obligation for the mining industry to supply the communities where they operate with education, houses, roads, clinics or hospitals.

That has always been government’s responsibility.

Hence, to date, it has fallen on the democratic government to try and make something good out of the single-sex hostels legacy left by the mines by converting them into family units post-1994.

It is self-defeating for government to keep at arms-length from the industry except to issue mining licences and collect taxes and royalties,while the same government is left to deal with the negative impact of the mines when
they leave, such as unemployment, illiteracy, disability and illness.

Unpaid occupational lung disease compensation for gold miners alone was estimated to be R10?billion in 1996.

These worrying aspects of the industry prove that until the ownership of the minerals beneath our land are returned to the people, economic freedom will remain a pipe-dream.

We cannot keep mortgaging our common heritage to reckless tenants.

»Mabe is ANC Youth League treasurer-general and writes in his personal capacity

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