Mining the Past; the Troubled Mines of South Africa to Pit Disasters Closer to Home Inspired Bel Roberts' Latest Story, Surfing through Minefields AUTHOR'S NOTES

Article excerpt

Iwas born in the Rhondda Valley 72 years ago and can clearly remember miners walking up the hill past our house to get to Gelli Pit and our next door neighbour shuffling home from shifts, helmeted and with coal dust still ingrained on his face.

I can also remember hearing miners late at night gasping for breath on our steep hill as they made their way home from pubs and clubs to terraced houses in Wyndham and Kennard Streets.

My father had left his native Caernarfonshire in the 1920s and moved to South Wales looking for work but determined never to resort to coal mining.

Conversely, my mother's father was an ostler at a Mountain Ash pit and her four brothers all began working as teenagers in the local mines.

When my mother died in 2006, among her effects was the death certificate of a nephew, who had died aged only 26 years, and as recently as 1951, with the causes of death given as 'Exhaustion'.

Anyway, after graduating from Aberystwyth University in 1962 I spent most of the next 20 years teaching in schools in Greater London, with chalk rather than coal dust running through my veins.

But my interest in mining never dimmed. My active link with mining was fully restored when I retired and began writing fiction and travelling worldwide.

On regular six-monthly visits to South Africa between 2002 and 2007, I sat in the shade of citrus trees, writing short stories and waiting for telephone calls inviting me to fill in for absent staff at local township schools.

But in school holidays, I took the opportunity to join tours around gold mines in Witwatersrand, sifting through the ochre-dust deposits of Johannesburg's gold mountains and staring into The Big Hole, the largest man-made dent in the world, scooped out of the diamond fields of Kimberley.

Today, South Africa remains a leading supplier of a vast range of minerals and the mostly black miners still work long shifts, bare-chested and in dangerous and uncomfortable conditions.

(Indeed, last week 44 people were killed at Lonmin platinum mine in South Africa, where strike over pay escalated into alleged turf war between unions. The protests began when workers demanded a pay increase to 12,500 rand (pounds 976) a month.) In the summer of 2005 I found myself back home in Caerphilly. …