Mining communities bear the burden of disease

This opinion piece appeared in New Frame on 9 July 2020. The original can be viewed here.

If the mining industry was forced to account for and reverse the environmental damage it causes, it would not be financially viable. It is only through the externalisation of the costs of the destruction of farming lands and forests, the contamination and overuse of water sources, and the pollution of the air we breathe that the mining industry can generate its profits.

This environmental subsidisation of mining, which we all ultimately pay for, is however not the only way that the industry externalises costs to maximise profits. As Harold Wolpe showed us in his seminal 1972 academic article, Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power in South Africa: From Segregation to Apartheid, the externalisation of the costs of the social reproduction of mineworkers onto their respective communities has also contributed to the vast profits that have been made in the mining sector in South Africa since the late 19th century. In short, Wolpe argued that through systems of control and exploitation, capital can pay wages to miners that are below the level of the reproduction of mine labour. This reproduction “cost” is filled by burdens placed on the communities in which miners live or to which they return when they become ill or retire. This burden falls particularly hard on women. 

While there are now significantly fewer migrant labourers than when Wolpe was writing in the early 1970s, the social reproduction burdens placed on mining communities today are little different to those described then. Many miners still do not receive an actual “living wage” – the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) campaign for a minimum wage of R12 500 per month. In addition, social and economic conditions in most mining communities in South Africa remain appalling. Most mineworkers live in overcrowded informal housing and lack access to land, water, sanitation and health services. 

In particular, the burdens of ill health, often the result of – or greatly exacerbated by – mining, such as tuberculosis, silicosis or HIV and Aids, have been largely shouldered by families in mining communities. Even when mines have acted on health issues, such as the decision to roll out antiretrovirals (ARVs) in the early 2000s, this only took place, as historian Shula Marks shows us, after mining companies realised that illness, deaths and strike action over the drugs would cost the industry more than it would to roll them out. 

In recent years, mining communities have begun to mobilise en masse in organisations such as Mining Affected Communities United in Action (Macua) and the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network to force both mining companies and the government to improve the conditions of those who live and work around mines. They have shown how the alleged dividends of mining that are said to flow to host communities are largely nonexistent. Rather, they have illustrated how mining damages host communities through the loss of access to land, the pollution of water sources, the break-up of pre-existing communities, the introduction and spread of diseases and the wholesale despoliation of the environment. Through activities such as social audits, they have shown how mechanisms which are meant to benefit local communities, such as social and labour plans, are completely inadequate.

These organisations have been spurred on by recent court decisions that have placed their needs and concerns at the heart of debates around mining in South Africa. For example, in 2018 the high court in Pretoria allowed mining communities to join court proceedings to review the Mining Charter on the basis that they had not been adequately consulted in the drawing up of the new charter. Even more significantly, the high court found in late 2018 that before granting mining rights in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape, the community had to give their full and formal support to mining. 

It is in this context that Covid-19 arrived in South Africa. While much has been written about its substantial dangers to miners because of the respiratory issues that plague them, there has been significantly less focus on members of mining communities. This is despite research which shows that they too suffer from many of the same respiratory conditions that make miners so vulnerable to Covid-19. The silica-rich airborne particulate matter (which contains differing mixtures of cadmium, manganese, gold, arsenic and lead, among others) that is so damaging to miners’ respiratory systems regularly blows through mining communities throughout South Africa. 

Research has shown that living within 2km of a mine or a mine dump in South Africa (about 1.6 million people) results in elevated adverse respiratory health effects. Community members are at increased risk from chest wheezing, rhinoconjunctivitis, chronic coughs, pneumonia and chronic bronchitis. Of particular concern, given the dramatic impact of Covid-19 on the elderly, are the results of research undertaken by the South African Medical Research Council and the University of Pretoria in 2015, which found that there “is a high prevalence of chronic respiratory symptoms and diseases among the elderly in communities located near mine dumps”. The same researchers produced similar findings among adolescents living in mining communities. 

These respiratory problems are exacerbated by poverty. Many residents of mining communities use open fires and paraffin for cooking and heating because electricity is unavailable or too expensive. A lack of proper housing, inadequate sanitation and poor access to healthcare result in the creation of conditions ideal for the spread of pathogens such as Covid-19. For example, overcrowded shack settlements make social distancing impossible, while inadequate or nonexistent supplies of clean water make the regular washing of hands extremely difficult. 

Unsurprisingly, mining community organisations like Macua are greatly alarmed by the threat Covid-19 poses. Since the partial (50%) and now complete reopening of the mines, community groups have fought to have their concerns heard by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, the Mineral Council of South Africa and the individual mining companies in their respective communities. 

Sadly, and perhaps predictably, their voices are not being heard. No consultations took place between the department and community representatives in the early weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown, despite repeated collective and public calls from community organisations, including open letters to President Cyril Ramaphosa and the department’s minister, Gwede Mantashe. This means that mining communities were not consulted regarding those mines that remained open during the lockdown, or about how mines would be reopened as the lockdown was eased. 

This lack of community consultation was revealed in the Labour Court in mid-April when Macua became an amicus curiae in a case between Amcu and the mineral resources department. Amcu had gone to the Labour Court to try to get the department to impose mandatory, rather than advisory, regulations relating to how mining companies were to respond to Covid-19 in terms of miners’ health. Finding in favour of Amcu, Judge Andre van Niekerk stated that it is “not seriously disputed that the vulnerability of mineworkers in turn renders the communities in which they live vulnerable to Covid-19”. He ordered that in drawing up a code of practice to mitigate the disease, the department must not only consult with trade unions and employers but must also fully consult with representatives from mining communities.

Despite this court order, community concerns have once again been ignored. While community organisations were invited to make submissions on the draft guidelines produced by the mineral resources department, none of their key submissions, such as screening, testing and track-and-trace to be compulsory in communities near mines, have been adopted. In addition, the task team established by the department to draw up and oversee the new guidelines does not include any community representation. 

The chairperson of the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network, Elton Thobejane, notes that the guidelines “totally disregard mining-affected communities” and as such they “further the already prominent culture of neglecting mining-affected communities within the mining sector”. Similarly, Messhack Mbangula, the national coordinator of Macua, states “we were completely left out of the guidelines”, arguing that the department was once again paying “lip service” to court-ordered consultation, reducing it to little more than a “box-ticking exercise”.

Those living and working in mining communities also question the department’s ability to implement the regulations that have been agreed between it and employers and labour. Given its appalling track record in ensuring compliance with existing legislation relating to mining’s impact on communities and the environment, these are undoubtedly legitimate concerns. As Macua’s Media Subcommittee Coordinator  Gilbert Moela states, “The [mineral resources department] cannot even monitor its existing regulations.”

As of 3 July, there had been 2 739 Covid-19 cases in the mining sector, which have sadly resulted in 14 deaths. Despite the mineral council’s denials, it is quite clear that mines provide ideal conditions for the spread of the virus – as the emergence of hotspots in Limpopo, Gauteng and North West (where infections in mining areas account for 60% of the province’s positive cases) in the mining sector demonstrates.

Given the intimate relationship that exists between mines, their employees and the communities in which these employees live, it is inevitable that Covid-19 infections will be spread into communities – people who, because of respiratory issues caused in large part by the mines, are particularly vulnerable to the disease. So once again, it will be the families and friends of miners who will bear the social, economic and emotional burden of disease. 

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