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
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
"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
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. …