McColloch, Jock. South Africa's Gold Mines & the Politics of Silicosis

By Moore, Bernard C. | Journal of Third World Studies, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

McColloch, Jock. South Africa's Gold Mines & the Politics of Silicosis


Moore, Bernard C., Journal of Third World Studies


McColloch, Jock. South Africa's Gold Mines & the Politics of Silicosis. Suffolk, UK: James Currey, 2012.

In South Africa's Gold Mines & the Politics of Silicosis, Jock McColloch presents a striking analysis of migrant labor and miners' health under apartheid. For much of the twentieth century, the Rand gold mines had an international reputation for workers' safety and health. The South African government and the Chamber of Mines invested in medical research, often making this data available overseas. McColloch shows that international admirers of South African mines and mine safety were unaware of the migrant labor situation or how racialized the data collection and medical inspections were. A paradox resulted by which there was intense debate about silicosis and tuberculosis in gold mines, but the disease burden remained invisible. McColloch argues that medical costs were externalized onto the migrant labor-sending areas, often in Malawi and Mozambique (p. 161). McColloch makes clear that the profitability of South Africa's gold mines relied on cheap, migrant labor from the rural areas and neighboring colonies. The mines were actually of very low grade: three tons of ore produced roughly one ounce of gold (p. 7). These deposits would not be profitable in Australia or North America due to higher wages and tighter labor laws. In addition, he shows the interconnections between South African government and the mining conglomerates; the state depended on mine taxation, while the mines relied on state infrastructure and labor recruitment. Policies and practices regarding the mines were inherently tied to questions about migrant labor.

Miners' health, particularly silicosis and tuberculosis, becomes a unique lens through which one can contextualize migrant labor and the apartheid political system. The Rand mines have a particularly high silica content in the ore and because of South Africa's racialized labor system migrant Africans more than likely worked in underground positions. This put them in regular contact with silica dust, which when inhaled irritates and scars the upper lobes of the lung. The lung damage on its own could kill a miner in a few years (p. 2). To complicate the issue further, silicosis increases the likelihood of a miner contracting tuberculosis, as it affects the same parts of the lung. Therefore, the South African government and the mining corporations invested heavily in research to find affordable ways to mitigate this issue; they also looked to hide or diminish the controversy with public relations campaigns. …

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