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Storm over SA's "archaic" mining laws.

South Africa's mining industry is undergoing the most critical examination in its century-old history. The mining unions want radical legislation to reshape the industry; the mining houses claim this would be a recipe for disaster. The Government is caught in the middle.

South Africa's mining policies have been largely determined in the past by the needs of the six great mining finance houses: Anglo American and De Beers, Genmin, Anglovaal, Goldfields, JCI, and Rand Mines. While these policies have been the source of much of South Africa's wealth, they have also directly created a great deal of the social and economic abuse associated with the apartheid regime.

"The mining industry in this country is the seed-bed of industrialisation and is also the fountainhead of the vices that were refined by the National Party," says Mr Kglama Motlanthe, Secretary General of the Miners Union (NUM). "Whether you're looking at detention without trial, whether you're looking at single sex hostels and compounds, these are found in the mining industry and were copied by the then Government," he adds.

Mr Motlanthe says the time is now ripe to "overhaul the archaic practices that obtain in the mines and we need Government intervention to do so."

For Mr Nelson Mandela's Government, this has been a thorny issue. The large mining houses, indeed most of the white-owned industrial sector, have been warning the Government that unless union pressure is resisted, the economy could go into a tailspin.

To the unions, particularly the NUM, the time for a comprehensive change of legislation is overdue. The Government has been dropping heavy hints to the mining industry, urging it to reform itself.

This is not good enough for the NUM: "Left to its own designs, the mining industry is incapable of changing. To them a good deal is a deal where they win 100%. They have this uneven contest, if you like, with the workers out there. I don't think they're capable of changing unless they're nudged quite hard by the Government."

So far, the "hard nudge" from Government has come in the form of a commitment to major policy and legislative changes within a tight timetable. While it is unlikely the timetable will be adhered to with the volume of work passing through the South African Parliament, all parties are agreed that change must and will come, as much through discussion and consensus as through legal instruments.

Meanwhile, the NUM can celebrate at least one victory. The Leon Enquiry into Health and Safety, commissioned after three years of intense pressure from the NUM, published a damning indictment in May this year. The report, which ran to 2,600 pages, detailed the unsafe and often inhuman conditions in many of South Africa's mines and drew attention to the high levels of inadequately recorded occupational diseases among mineworkers.

Since the Health and Safety law is part of the Minerals Act, changes to this law will also require the developing of a new mining policy Act.

Some in the industry are anxious to prevent a confrontation between the mining houses and labour.

Mr Marcel Golding, MP and Chair of the Mining and Energy Sub Committee explains: "The basic thrust of the Leon Commission report has been accepted and a task team has been established: It is drafting the law, which will be negotiated by the tripartite bodies, the Government, the National Union of Miners and the employers. By early next year, we will have a new health and safety law implemented in the country, and over the next six or seven months we'll debate and finalise this."

The Mining and Energy Policy Centre (MEPC), is a key body in advising on a new mining policy. It identifies one of the major issues now as a lack of new ideas from the mining giants. Reactive rather than proactive responses are the order of the day, says Dr John Bristow: "Practically every mining executive is saying that the industry has real problems but no one's saying let's put some new ideas on the table. Its trying to work out a problem from the status quo and I don't think we can do that any more."

The MEPC, Chaired by Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, Secretary General of the NUM and currently ANC Secretary General is actively researching new models for the mining industry. It has looked in detail at the Canadian Whitehorse Mining Initiative, a model which operates on consensus between all the involved bodies to produce a "socially, economically and environmentally sustainable and prosperous mining industry". It is perhaps the best practice to be found in the industry, covering environmental questions and community needs as well as industry development. Whether it will be adopted remains to be seen.

Commission of inquiry

The ANC has also proposed a commission of inquiry into South Africa's diamond mining industry, to be announced later this year. Mr Marcel Golding has outlined the brief of the Inquiry: "I think there's a recognition that the mining industry has to change in its broadest aspects, certainly with respect to the diamond industry. Apart from the beneficiation side in the future, on the production side, if one's going to achieve the objectives of greater black participation and develop greater equity in the industry, then some reform is necessary".

The Inquiry will look at the production side of diamonds, foreign exchange earnings for South Africa, and equity of participation for black people. The ANC also wants to know how South Africa links into the world diamond market.

At present, De Beers Consolidated mines 93% of South Africa's diamonds in its six land based mines and offshore operations. Its other interests include the South African elements of the CSO and companies manufacturing synthetic diamond and abrasive products. All other De Beers interests are incorporated in Switzerland as De Beers Centenary.

A key element in these inquiries is the need for transparency within industry, says Mr Golding: "Greater transparency does not apply only to diamonds; there's a whole range of sectors in South Africa that operate in that way - oil is another example. We've got to break the tradition where business is not open."

That the mining industry needs reform is beyond question. Apart from the mining houses' need to improve productivity, there is an urgent need to create jobs and improve the conditions for workers.

Thus far, South African mineworkers have been little more than "human batteries" plugged into the system and disposed off at will. Changing the mining system will go a long way to severing the residual roots of the old discredited apartheid order.

The old system is no longer even productive for the mining houses who benefited so substantially from the cheap labour. High-technology mining needs a skilled workforce and miners now want not only their existing skills formally recognised but also the education and training denied them by the apartheid system.
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Title Annotation:South Africa
Author:Gordon, Chris
Publication:African Business
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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