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S. Africa Shooting Exposes Miners' Living Conditions

IKEMELENG, South Africa — The shock, the mourning, and now the questions 10 days after the shoot-out in a South African platinum mine in which police killed 34 striking miners. The tragedy laid bare the harsh living conditions of the workers and the growing anger in the mines.

The sound of machines at the mine can be heard from the miners' shacks, in the what is called the platinum belt. It is here, 100 kilometers west of South Africa's capital city Pretoria, that 80 percent of the world's platinum is dug out.

Walking back home after eight hours of work, Nicolas is tired. Since last year, the 26-year-old miner spends his days in the dark, hundreds of meters underground. He says accidents can happen very fast.

"Down there, there is a lot of injuries," he said. "Even the hanging walls, sometimes, the rocks falling, something like that."

Ten-thousand people live in Ikemeneng township. Miners, like Nicolas, earn around $500 a month working for nearby mining companies, such as AngloAmerican. They also get a living allowance of around $200 a month, not enough to find a decent accommodation close to the mine and avoid transportation costs. So the vast majority of them prefer sending money to their families and live in nearby shacks.

Norman Thobeli has been working here for eight years. He says despite the frustration many miners feel, companies will always find a ready workforce.

"The conditions sometimes, you find workers, you find yourself sometimes working in unsafe place, and there is no way that you can deny sometimes, because you need to work there," he said.

His shack has no electricity, no running water, and the outside toilet is shared with two other families.

South Africa's Mining Industry

  • Number of workers: 498,141
  • Industry deaths: 128
  • Key commodities mined: Diamonds, gold, platinum, palladium
  • Real mining GDP: $12.06 billion
  • Mineral exports: $36.25 billion

Source: Chamber of Mines of South Africa Figures for 2010
The platinum industry has been here for long a long time, but it was only after white minority rule ended that the miners got the right to protest and started to talk about their woes, which also include the impact of the industry on the environment.

Since 2006, the Johannesburg-based Bench Marks Foundation has been monitoring and studying the work and living condition of the miners. Executive Director John Capel says the poverty of the miners has consequences for South Africa's welfare.

"Those worker become a burden on the community, on local health facilities, on clinics, on everything else," he said. "So the government needs to to be looking at this and say, 'What is needed, around the mining industry for workers, for communities? How can we improve the lives of or working conditions, how can we implement laws?"

But its easier said than done when the lawmakers face a conflict of interest. Some ruling-party ANC officials are also trustees or stakeholders in some of these mining companies, making reform a difficult balancing act.

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