The African continent is known across the world for its natural beauty and even more so for its mineral wealth. South Africa in particular has a massive mining industry – it is a major source of diamonds, gold, platinum and coal, and is home to most of the deepest mines in the world. With a vast supply of highly sought-after raw materials and a relatively low population density considering the space, South Africa has a thriving mining industry. Unfortunately the industry is tarnished by a history of turbulence when it comes to health and safety.
Because of apartheid the working class in South Africa was separated based on race, and the black working class suffered with shocking exploitation, especially in the mines. Laws were passed that reserved skilled and semi-skilled work for white people only and black workers were paid significantly less than white workers – even when they were doing the same kind of work. In later years white workers were angered when the mines laid many of them off in favour of black workers to cut costs. They went on strikes and hundreds of people were killed.
During one of the strikes the prime minister sent in the army and the air force dropped bombs on those who were striking. He also had the four leaders of the strike hanged for instigating the strike. Besides blatant racism and violent strikes, fatalities in the mines were very high due to a major lack in safety measures – and this applied to all skin colours.
It is hard to imagine that the government once dropped bombs on miners! Luckily this level of violence is no longer happening in the country and conditions have drastically changed. According to the Department of Mineral Resources the number of fatalities dropped over the years from well over 200 in 2007 to 128 in 2010, and further down to 77 in 2015, indicating a steady improvement at least in the area of safety.
Unfortunately, despite South Africa taking significant steps to improve working conditions in mines after the apartheid ended, the problems haven’t disappeared. Even though nobody is being bombed or hung, the fatalities and poor conditions are simply not acceptable. There are still major safety hazards like collapsing tunnels, falling rocks, toxic fumes, high temperatures and intensive noise. Many miners suffer from diseases like silicosis and tuberculosis (TB), and countless miners are still not given adequate compensation for hard and risky labour.
South Africa is not unique in having less than favourable conditions in the mining sector. Nigeria and other major mining countries on the African continent also have their share of problems, most similar to what is faced by South African miners. But for Nigeria, the DRC and other African countries there is another, severely grim issue: child labour.
There have been serious concerns over child labour and child trafficking to mining sites throughout Africa. Despite employing minors being unlawful in most African countries, the continent continues to be home to around a quarter of the world’s child labourers, and the vast majority of these children work in mines for 12 to 15 hours a day for a meagre wage of less than US$2. The only hope is that, like South Africa, other countries are also making a conscious effort to improve mining conditions.