Black silicosis and South African gold

For almost a hundred years South Africa’s gold mines claimed to be leading the world in safety, medical surveillance and compensation, but a careful reading of the history suggests that was an illusion. The industry’s failure to create safe workplaces and to compensate migrant workers for occupational disease underpinned its commercial success and allowed the costs of production to be shifted to rural communities.                                                                                  (McCulloch, p.13)

I really enjoyed the Hazard and Risk Assessment course I took in 2012 at the Camborne School of Mines. Half the course was taught by Robert Pine, calculating hazard probabilities and assessing geo-technical risk. The other half was taught by Pat Foster. It focused more on the human side, about managing health and safety systems and promoting the “zero harm” safety culture. Sadly, an aspect of the course that was lacking was a serious engagement with occupational disease. I know next to nothing about silicosis or exposure limits, but the book I’ve just finished helped open my eyes to the issue within South African gold mining history. A recent, popular study states that approximately 1/5 of older, black South African gold miners are burdened with silicosis. When probably 1/5 to 1/4 of MSc graduates will be working in a region embroiled in an unjust, exploitative history of racial discrimination, migrant black labor, and with a modern health pandemic of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, I think it’s irresponsible that we didn’t once mention this on our course.

The book I read is South Africa’s Gold Mines & The Politics of Silicosis written by Jock McCulloch. There are dozens of similar books, hundreds of articles, and the scientific knowledge has been available for over a century. In fact, South Africa first administered compensation for silicosis beginning in 1912. Since mining on the Witwatersrand began in 1886, it was known that the conglomerate ore body had a high silica content and therefore the use of pneumatic drills and gelignite explosive would produce clouds of dust which could destroy a miner’s lungs in a few years. South Africa was also the first to regulate blasting, water-down drilling and require ventilation to improve conditions, back in 1916. But the story is not about engineered solutions, technical findings or scientific communities; the story is fairly straight forward – corporate gold mining profits depended on hiding a pandemic of silicosis in black migrant workers for almost a century. It’s a dire social legacy of the mining industry, and it requires looking through the lenses of politics, social norms, and justice – it is a case of corporate social irresponsibility.

Since 2006, an increasing number of lawsuits threaten the large mining houses to the tune of hundred of millions of pounds. Claimants charge that the risk of lung disease via silica dust was not protected for or compensated. More litigation info here. The mining industry defense relies on the idea of ignorance, arguing it was a victim of failed science and did not understand the severity of risk faced by employees. The history is complex and more dramatic than the book title suggests. Over a dozen large conferences and official enquiries have been held in South Africa on silicosis, causing havoc and conflict over administering a medical system forced to minimize compensation costs. Doctors, activists, and miners continue a struggle to reconcile historic injustices which are impossible to deny. There may be up to 300,000 claimants, and I cannot offer any suggestions as to how compensation could work. I only present some aspects of the book I found interesting:

Gold Miner Silicosis

  • Stratford Commission 1943 – Chamber of Mines ‘official’ silicosis rate 0.2%, but more likely closer to or exceeding the modern rate of 22% and if that latter rate applied, compensation benefits would equal ~ 300,000,000 GBP, compared to 1963 company profits of 11,822,000 GBP. The cost of lung disease was clearly shifted onto labour-sending communities, and if that likelihood of risk was so prevalent the mines should be closed. (p47)
  • Other report of 1943 on Remuneration and Conditions of Employment of Natives agreed that “mine’s profitability depended upon externalizing the costs of production, either by paying below-subsistence wages or by not treating or compensating black miners with tuberculosis.” (p99) This is not brought up in Mine Economics lectures, which emphasize the cost impact of labour, but further mystify the human cost on labour-sending communities and hide the prevalence of mining-induced disease and misery.
  • Dr. Gerrit Schepers evidence before Beyers Commission in 1952: many cases reviewed of black miners “in the process of dying”, some who had simply been worked to death. “Whites survived on average three years after retirement. Blacks who had worked three consecutive contracts were often dead a year after they left the mines.” Tuberculosis rates were very high and most cases sent home on sick trains with no compensation; the horrendous impact of tuberculosis was common knowledge at the medical Bureau but staff members faced 10,000 GBP fine and 10 years imprisonment for breaking confidentiality agreements; therefore most openly voted against good conscience in order to retain their pensions in Britain. The attitude of the medical Bureau was to wait until the employee is sick and can’t work. (p112)
  • Tuberculosis “Death Trains” reported in the 1954 Oosthuizen Enquiry: 700 sick miners (50% from outside South Africa) repatriated annually to villages. Fitness for travel determined by ability to stand up, and common occurrence to die on the train. Infected men spread disease in villages, contributing to epidemic. (p119)
  • Leon Commission of 1995 (p.145) in chapter ‘The Sick Shall Work’ finally gave voice to black miners, the “men without qualities”, and finally acknowledged that tens of thousands had contracted silicosis on the mines but were never diagnosed and never received compensation. The social and economic costs of this racism and greed cannot be easily calculated.

I would not expect a Masters-level science course in the engineering field to detour into the fields of social justice, regional history, or medical anthropology. But I do know that many classmates will become managers in the industry, and that most managers come from science and engineering disciplines – this makes obvious sense. And from this book it is clear to me that prejudiced social norms and industrial segregation worked hand in hand for over a century in South Africa to conceal the tragic effect of disease causing unimaginable pain, suffering, and death. Mining can be an agent of human suffering and social conflicts.

Now my next book to distract from exam revision and geostatistics will be In Good Company, claiming to tell the story of morals and markets, an anatomy of the corporate social responsibility pursued by Anglo American.

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