South Africa Digs out of Its Mining Crisis the Country's Sagging Gold Industry Looks to Research to Develop Less Costly and Safer Deep-Level Mining Techniques
John Battersby, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
THERE is a sense of expectation in the crowded change-room as we fasten white overalls and straighten our hard hats.
Minutes later the huge metal cage - with three decks containing 30 people on each deck - is hurtling toward the center of the earth at 2,500 feet per minute.
The deafening noise of steel-on-steel, the humid air, dank aroma, and surrounding darkness reminds the visitor that he is entering an alien and dangerous world.
Western Holdings mine - No. 3 shaft - is typical of hundreds of shafts that penetrate deep into the reef of gold-bearing rock that describes an arc from a point east of Johannesburg and southward to this Orange Free State town. But the magic of gold - a symbol of South Africa's economic wealth - is beginning to fade because of soaring production costs and a static world gold price.
"Gold has become more a luxury commodity used in jewelry than a store of wealth," says Anglo American Gold Division chairman Clem Sunter, announcing a 19 percent fall in profits for the first quarter of this year.
As South Africa's gold industry enters its worst crisis since its inception a century ago, it is looking to its research wing to streamline techniques and cut costs.
Recent advances in deep-mining technology hold out the prospect of a safer working environment and savings for mine owners that, in turn, could reduce the number of retrenchments and mine closures.
"If you put together all the progress that has been made, it will certainly help the gold industry through difficult times," says John Sheer, director of the Chamber of Mines Research Organization.
Despite safety measures in effect, South Africa's 450,000 black workers in the gold mines face constant danger in the form of rock bursts, gas leaks, underground fires, and land falls.
About 9,000 mine workers are injured - and 500 die - each year. But the most serious threat facing black mine workers at present is that of retrenchment in a climate of economic recession.
Since black mine workers went on a nationwide strike in 1987, some 80,000 jobs have been cut - at least 40,000 through direct retrenchment. The industry predicts that a further 80,000 jobs are threatened.
Last week(Apr.18) the giant Anglo American Corporation announced that it is cutting back its work force - which numbered 200,000 two years ago - by a further 12,500 to about 180,000.
South Africa's share of world gold production has dropped from 70 percent in 1980 to 36 percent in 1990.
But recent breakthroughs in the cooling of deep-level mines, hoisting methods, and techniques for stabilizing rock could hasten the mining of new gold deposits.
One major advance has been in the area of overcoming heat stress in mines that go two miles down, such as the Anglo American's Western Deep Levels mine - the world's deepest mine - near Carletonville.
"About 250,000 (50 percent) of the work force in the gold-mining industry operate at one mile or deeper and about 25,000 work at depths of below 1.6-miles," says Horst Wagner, senior operations manager for the Chamber of Mines.
Temperatures, which average 15 to 20 degrees C (59 to 68 degrees F) on the surface in summer, increase by 1 degree C for every 250 feet of depth in most of South Africa's gold mines.
This means rock temperatures of up to 50 and 60 degrees C (124 to 140 degrees F) can be encountered at a depth of two miles.
`WHERE environmental temperatures approach body temperature (37 to 38 degrees C.), the danger of heat stress occurs," Dr. Wagner says. "Research has shown that about 10 percent of people are heat intolerant."
Methods have been devised to identify such people and ensure they have surface jobs.
The ideal is to cool the air in the mine to a temperature of 28 degrees C (82 degrees F).
The gold-mining industry has pioneered a system of ice-cooling that is more efficient - and cheaper - than water- or air-cooling. …