Children Have Drowned: Expert’s shocking mining report

We are all equal and every death at work diminishes all of us

This week the Lonmin PLC mining company gives evidence at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry. Recently we ran a story delving into the real cost of Platinum to our nation. In this leading article for The Journalist the world renowned Dr Sophia Kisting, Occupational Medicine Specialist and former Director of the ILO Global Programme on HIV/AIDS, reports on the findings of a group of eminent experts.

These reflections on visits to the Wonderkop, Marikana area are in recognition and support of The Journalist’s excellent report to mark the second anniversary of the Marikana tragedy, The real price of platinum – squalor in the midst of immense wealth. I would like to concur and support the views and perspectives of Chris Molebatsi and David van Wyk in the above-named report.

I had the opportunity to visit, with Eugene Cairncross, the Wonderkop, Marikana area more than once on behalf of the People’s Health Movement (PHM) in collaboration with the Bench Marks Foundation (BMF). The following observations and perspectives are informed by the interviews with community members and workers about their occupational and environmental health concerns, related to platinum mining.

This overview draws on the PHM background paper on the extractive industries for the Lancet Commission Report on the Global Governance for Health. The direct experience of the interviewees can only reflect a small part of the total reality of platinum mining, but their stories reflect both their dire present circumstances and the ghosts and memories of the past.

(Ed Note: Eugene Cairncross is a former Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. He is a member of the People’s Health Movement.)

There is a road in Gauteng all along the old gold reef, the foundation of the mining industry. Along this road there are 600 abandoned mines.

There is a road in Gauteng all along the old gold reef, the foundation of the mining industry. Along this road there are 600 abandoned mines. Photo courtesy David van Wyk.

The visit to the Marikana area came after I spent over six years in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva. During this time I had the opportunity to visit and work at numerous workplaces in many industrialised and less industrialised countries. My experience was that good occupational and environmental health and safety practices are influenced by a number of factors.

These, amongst others include:

  • good legislation and good practical implementation of policies agreed upon by workers and employers and which support decent work and salaries;
  • a strong motivated inspectorate;
  • effective and efficient enforcement of legislation;
  • meaningful ongoing training for all workers and all managers and ongoing skills development;
  • a good functioning compensation system which underpins PREVENTION;
  • the protection of human rights and the necessary financial resources. More important than the financial resources was the collective and interdependent mindset that death, diseases and injuries from work is totally unacceptable and can be PREVENTED.

Not once did I gain the impression that as a country we are less capable than any other to implement these factors effectively and efficiently. Our very history can and should be our inspiration to excel in healthy and safe environments and workplaces. We can set a proud and leading example amongst the nations of the world.

Unfortunately, on arrival at the Marikana area I was shocked at the very obvious signs of ongoing inequality and deprivation. What we observed and what we learnt from our interactions with workers and communities was traumatic and very disappointing as it is eminently possible to change working and environmental conditions for the better, for our common humanity and for sustainable development.

Unreformed system perpetuating inequality

It was shocking to see so much evidence of the apartheid style migrant labour system that is in place in the platinum belt. Many workers come from other parts of South Africa or from neighbouring countries. The living-out allowance that was meant to address, in part, the inhuman single-sex hostel system of apartheid is woefully inadequate and has helped to perpetuate further uncertainty, lack of sustainability and backyard dwellings with lack of infra-structure to support residents.

The system of increasing sub-contracting and labour-brokering is making the effects of the migrant labour system, as practiced in the platinum belt, much worse. Many workers are employed through subcontractors and labour brokers. Their wages are meagre and they have limited work benefits. From the reports of families of mineworkers employed through labour brokers it is clear that they cannot escape abject poverty on the wages earned. We learnt of one such family where a young man who completed matric and qualified to go to university, could not do so. He tried to start his own business which was broken into repeatedly. In despair he took his own life by burning himself with paraffin.

Gauteng's Mining Wasteland.

Gauteng’s Mining Wasteland. Photo courtesy David van Wyk.

Conditions & Compensation

The Annual Report of the Department of Mineral Resources for 2012-2013 indicate there were 28 deaths and 1 360 injuries reported in platinum mines for 2012 (keeping in mind that some mines may not have sent in reports).

The overall number of deaths in the mining sector has been decreasing systematically over the past years and this indicates better safety standards and it is commendable. However, every death at work is a tragedy that is unacceptable because it is PREVENTABLE. More so since the profit margins in platinum mining are of such a magnitude that safety can be guaranteed.

The tragic loss of life at Marikana for communities and workers and their families are work-related. Should the 44 people who so tragically died be added to the reports of fatalities the platinum mines send in to the Department of Mineral Resources?

In addition, we have the other tragedy of significant loss of life in abandoned mines where the miners are termed “illegal”? This however, is mining related and should mine owners not take greater responsibility for the safety of abandoned mine shafts?

Surely, we are all equal and every death at work diminishes all of us?

The Annual Report of the Department of Mineral Resources for 2011-2012 indicates that platinum mines reported for 2011 the diagnosis of:

  • 129 workers with silicosis
  • 1 005 with Pulmonary Tuberculosis and
  • 367 with Noise Induced Hearing Loss

As with deaths and injuries these diseases are totally PREVENTABLE. There are countries in the world who have managed to eliminate silicosis through adequate control measures. However, we are not winning the battle with occupational diseases.

The report further indicates very high levels of silica dust in several mines as well as excessive heat and noise. This is all the more distressing as our occupational exposure limit (known as oel) is far higher than what the World Health Organisation (WHO) considers to be a protective level.

It is important to state that silica dust in the lungs predispose workers to Pulmonary TB and if we do not control the dust more workers and their families will continue to develop pulmonary TB. Why should poor underpaid workers develop these diseases that constitute almost silent epidemics in our country in the 21st century?

The mining sector has the financial resources, the technical know-how, and our country has the knowledge and human resource capacity to PREVENT this. The parliamentary report of the Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi during his budget speech in 2014 described the magnitude of the TB problem in the mining sector as a whole:

“It is the highest incidence of TB in any working population in the world. It affects 500 000 mineworkers, their 230 000 partners, and 700 000 children.”

When PREVENTION and hazard control mechanisms fail at work, sick or injured workers are entitled to compensation. Unfortunately there are tens of thousands of workers with occupational (work-related) mining diseases living mainly in poor rural areas with inadequate access to health services. The majority of them have never received the compensation, as little as it is, that is due to them. The amount of money that the mining sector pays towards compensation is totally inadequate for the true cost of ill-health that is caused by this sector and is therefore not an incentive to PREVENT disease. The compensation system is fragmented and not functioning efficiently and effectively at all.

A collaborative, inclusive and interdependent approach amongst different government departments can successfully address the current failures of the compensation system. Once again, as a country we have the leadership, the requisite knowledge, skills, technical and economic resources to run a well functioning compensation system which can contribute in a major way to PREVENTION of ill-health, job security and sustainable industries.

The mining sector unfortunately have mostly externalised the health and environmental cost of their industries to the public sector, to workers, their families and to communities. They often deny and suppress the evidence demonstrating the causal relationship between exposure to mining hazards and adverse health outcome. They deny the huge contribution that the mining industry makes to the high burden of disease in the public health sector in South Africa. This is unnecessary and is a sad legacy of our divided past. Collectively and with the necessary dialogue and focus we can overcome this.

Most importantly, health workers are not effectively trained to recognise, diagnose and prevent occupational and environmental diseases even when they work right next to the mines and factories. If the many work-related diseases are not diagnosed and help us all become aware of the magnitude of the problem we lose a great opportunity in PREVENTION and fail to reduce the burden of disease in the public sector. Our schools, our colleges and our universities need to look into training curricula as a matter of great urgency to address this major shortcoming.

Women and platinum mining

Our democracy now makes it possible for women to work underground in mines. This is a big step forward but interviews reflect that they face many challenges in the mines. This is related to their relative small numbers underground as well as patriarchal societal norms practiced by mine management and by fellow workers. It is clear that ongoing monitoring and evaluation is necessary to enable women to benefit from a workplace free from harassment and lack of safe and adequate ablution facilities.

Interviewees related the problems of sex work in the platinum belt and the exposure of women and men to the risk of HIV and AIDS. The migrant labour system and conditions of work and living increases vulnerability to HIV, AIDS and TB.

Land rights vs mining rights

For kilometre upon kilometre in the platinum belt the land is covered with extensive dusty mine dumps and tailings dams. These are a blot on the striking beauty of the landscape. Many communities live in close proximity of the dumps and the mines and inhales the fine particles of the dust every day. There is evidence of many abandoned homes and of untended crops now growing behind razor wire enclosures with unfriendly warning signs. There is the ever presence of private security personnel behaving no differently than the police in the hey-day of apartheid.

Workers and community members tell of a sense of being engulfed in violence ever since the massacre. Amongst the most painful recollections of community members are those related to being moved off the productive land they lived on for generations into essentially squatter settlements to make way for platinum mining.

“We are victims of mining relocation in pursuit of the white gold called platinum,” says a worker.

The mine provides inferior zinc housing, few communal taps and no electricity. No refuse removal or adequate sewage systems are put in place. Many toilets overflow and streams of polluted water are evident creating major health hazards, especially for children. Unemployment is rife, further perpetuating the evidence of marked inequality.

Communities mostly have no electricity and have to use paraffin. One young woman was severely burnt. The stove was supplied by the mining company. There are endless problems with paraffin cooking and some houses have burnt down.

Questions of the land and mining remains unresolved and emotions related to the land runs very deep. The urgent quest of communities to have a meaningful say in the question of mining on land where they live is a fundamental human right that we can and should respect. We otherwise perpetuate the unequal practices of a past we all wish to redress. Many relocated community members have lost their livelihoods and they report that it is common practice of mine-owners not to employ members of the local communities.

The main environmental impact of platinum mining.

Eugene Cairncross presentation on behalf of the People’s Health Movement (PHM).

Children Have Drowned

The health, socio-economic and environmental impacts of platinum mining occur throughout every phase of its life cycle, from the cradle of exploration to the grave (and beyond) of abandoned mine shafts, disowned mountains of waste rock, tailings dams and lakes of polluted water.

Solid waste from underground result in extensive mountains of rock dumps covering land that was previously used for food production. The environmental pollution is extensive as about 18 tons of ore has to be processed to obtain one ounce of platinum ( (about 98% of the ore become dumps on the land).

There is excessive water and energy consumption by the mines while communities are in almost constant want of water and electricity. There are excessive and inadequately controlled Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) emissions from the smelters with resultant negative health effects especially on children, the elderly and people with lung problems. Water pollution through acidic seepage and runoff result in acid mine drainage. Community members complain that they have no reports from the mines to show that the emissions or the dust is controlled to reassure them that they and their children are safe from the environmental hazards of platinum mining.

They complain of blasting at the mines which take place at regular intervals and houses shake each time. Cracks are evident in many of them. The mine smelters burn day and night and the release of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide remains a constant uncertainty and major health risk for community members.

Children have drowned in unprotected mine dams and community members say these tragedies happen because the mine owners and mine management do not engage with them in any meaningful manner.

In the long term a much larger population is likely to be affected by the legacy of a devastated environment for decades and centuries after platinum mining has ceased. Unless work and environmental problems are addressed a concomitant legacy of platinum mining is that of huge numbers of unemployed workers and disrupted (mainly rural) societies, and a burden of disease and poverty suffered by both current and former mine workers and successive generations of their families.