About half of South Africa’s 600,000 black miners stayed off the job Wednesday to protest the deaths of 177 colleagues killed in a gold mine fire two weeks ago and to demand greater safety measures by mine owners.
The one-day walkout was the biggest work stoppage in the history of South African mining, costing the mining companies an estimated $3.6 million in lost profits and reminding them of the growing power and militancy of their black workers.
Cyril Ramaphosa, general secretary of the black National Union of Mineworkers, said that at least 325,000 miners refused to report for work, effectively shutting down more than 30 gold, coal, diamond and other mines across the country.
Marcel Golding, a union official, said: “This worker action is unparalleled in South Africa labor history, and it demonstrates the importance of worker safety at the workplace. The whole theme of this protest was that here was an accident that could and should have been prevented.”
Sealant Emitted Fumes
The 177 dead miners, all but five of them black, were asphyxiated Sept. 16 at the Kinross gold mine, 65 miles east-southeast of Johannesburg, when fire caused polyurethane foam used as a sealant to give off thick toxic fumes. The fire was a mile underground and lasted for eight hours.
The miners’ protest Wednesday was supported by an estimated 275,000 workers of other unions in the Congress of South African Trade Unions. They stopped work for one to three hours, according to union officials. Chemical, metal and food-processing industries were hardest hit, the officials said.
“This shows the extent to which the miners’ union is representative of the miners, and the support it is able to muster among other workers, including some who are not union members,” Jay Naidoo, general secretary of the trade union congress, told newsmen. “It also demonstrated that health and safety have become an important issue. . . .
“These numbers also reflect the extent of the action workers are prepared to take, and this should be borne in mind as the labor movement is forced to take up other matters not directly related to the workplace.”
Black nationalist leader Winnie Mandela was cheered at a union-sponsored memorial service last week when she said miners could bring the country to a halt and force the white-led minority government to abandon apartheid if they refused to work.
‘Fight This Exploitation’
Paul Nkoena, regional vice president of the mine workers, took up a similar theme at a meeting at union headquarters Wednesday,
“This stayaway is the beginning of greater things,” he said. “The solidarity shows that at the end of the day we shall unite in our fight for better conditions in the workplace. The workers must take control of the means of production. The time has come for us to stand up and fight this exploitation and make workplaces safe. . . . The time has come for us to take control of the economy of this country.”
Naidoo described the Kinross accident as an example of “what we suffer at the hands of the free enterprise system.” He said, “We want an alternative system and a society with the economy democratically controlled.”
Although employers gave somewhat lower figures for participation in Wednesday’s protest, most agreed that, except for recent one-day general strikes, it was the largest yet by black workers and effectively paralyzed much of South Africa’s mining industry.
The Chamber of Mines, the industry association, had called for five minutes of silence at noon in its 100 gold and coal mines nationwide, but the union said this was not adequate and called for the one-day work stoppage. Management officials at one major mine did hold a short prayer session to honor the dead miners.