Storm over SA's "Archaic" Mining Laws

Article excerpt

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. …