Market Scene : A Gold Mining Slump Digs Into South Africa : Layoffs and falling prices have pushed this key part of the economy into a crisis that could stall political reforms.


Franz Baleni faced two bombshells in a row.

The first one, evidently set by right-wing white supremacists, destroyed the office Baleni runs for the black National Union of Mineworkers in this racially tense mining town. No one was injured in the midnight blast.

The second stands to take a greater toll: an announcement from the country's largest gold mine that it will lay off nearly 8,000 mine workers, most of them members of Baleni's local.

"That's our main concern," Baleni said the other day as he talked with a reporter among the copiers and fax machines of the temporary office where he relocated after the bombing.

The laid-off miners were due minimal severance pay, had no training enabling them to move into other jobs and were to be summarily evicted from the mine company hostels where they had lived, sometimes for years.

"And now the members are very suspicious," Baleni said, "because all this talk of retrenchment always comes during our annual wage negotiations."

In fact, South Africa's gold mining industry is suffering through one of its deepest crises ever. In the last year more than 20,000 miners, virtually all of them unskilled blacks, have been laid off. Half of the 36 mines belonging to the Chamber of Mines, the national trade group, have applied for emergency subsidies from the government to stay open. Those mines alone employ 200,000 workers.

Compounding the crisis is the plunge in the worldwide gold price over the last few weeks to a five-year low, caused by a flood of sales from the Middle East and the Soviet Union. At the latest price of about $360 an ounce, around a fifth of South Africa's gold is being produced at a loss.

Analysts say the slump is likely to last longer and have greater impact on the country than previous ones for two reasons: The price of gold is expected to stay low for another year or more, and South Africa's fledgling political reform makes the health of the industry, a key prop of the national economy, critically important.

A lasting slump in the gold price could seriously hamper the architects of political reform here. President Frederik W. de Klerk changed the course of South African politics in February by lifting the ban on a number of anti-apartheid groups, including the African National Congress, and freeing ANC leader Nelson Mandela, among other activists.

But De Klerk faces a surge of opposition from whites concerned that they may lose their property and livelihood under a majority-black government. The only way to avert political crisis, many analysts say, is for the South African economy to expand enough to increase wealth and job opportunities for all.

Meanwhile, the rising expectations of blacks, if confounded by a recession, could foster disillusionment that might drain support from moderate black leaders, including the ANC's Mandela.

"Political reform is premised on a viable economy," said Robert Schrire, a professor of political science at the University of Cape Town. "If gold remains at this level for another 12 to 18 months, it could be a major body blow for the De Klerk regime, at a time when race relations are very sensitive and black aspirations have never been higher."

The gold-industry slump could even hurt the economies of some of South Africa's neighbors. Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and Malawi send tens of thousands of young men across the border every year to work in the mines of the Transvaal and Orange Free State and send their earnings home.

The slump in gold mining is a major problem here because no economy in the world is as dependent on gold as South Africa's.

The mines themselves employ more than 500,000 workers, more than two-thirds of them black. Another 1 million South Africans, including dependents and suppliers, rely on the industry for their livelihood.

Gold accounts for just over a third of South Africa's exports, down from 50% a few years ago. Gold reserves have been South Africa's best, if not its only, hedge against foreign trade sanctions and other economic restrictions. South Africa's plan to repay $2.3 billion in foreign debt this year could be seriously compromised by a protracted gold slump, which could deprive the country of $1.2 billion or more a year in foreign earnings.

When the gold mines get a sniffle, the entire economy catches pneumonia. The recent plunge in the gold price fostered a selling panic on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange that affected bank and industrial stocks as well as mining issues.

Yet the worldwide price may be the least of the miners' problems. More bothersome is the long-term decline in mine productivity.

"By and large, the South African gold mining industry has reached its peak," said Hilton Ashton, an industry analyst in Johannesburg.

South African gold production topped out in 1970 at 1,000 metric tons, which was then more than 70% of the Western world's output. By last year it had shrunk to 608 tons, the lowest total since 1958 (not counting strike-bound 1987) and just over a third of the West's production. This year production is expected to be barely 600 tons, and at the current price a further drop of 50 tons a year is probable.

Today South Africa is the highest-cost gold producer in the world. South Africa's mines are the world's deepest, with the quality of their ore, measured in terms of volume of gold extracted per ton of milled rock, close to the world's lowest.

As the gold price declines, many more mines will become marginal producers. Of greatest concern is the vast Freegold mining complex, South Africa's largest, which announced the layoffs in Franz Baleni's district. Freegold produces about 109 tons of gold a year, and the loss of a sixth of the nationwide output would spark a severe economic crisis for the country. For now, Freegold says its layoffs will allow it to continue producing virtually the same quantity of gold as before from its most efficient shafts.

What makes mining layoffs such an explosive political issue is that they hit the huge black work force much harder than whites. Few white mine workers are thrown out of work even in the deepest mining recessions, because they have a stranglehold on the most highly skilled--and therefore most portable--jobs.

"Skilled people can always be accommodated elsewhere in the industry," said Townsend Neethling, head of the Council of Mining Unions, the umbrella organization for white mine unions.

There are at least 30 black workers for every white member of the work force, but the proportion of blacks among the "retrenched" workers is close to 100%, according to officials of black and white unions alike.

Little effort has been made to move blacks into the skilled trades. The traditional barrier has been the so-called "reservation" law, enacted in 1911--a year after the creation of the Union of South Africa--which gives whites a monopoly of all skilled jobs in the mining industry.

The racial reservations were repealed in 1987, only to be supplanted by new criteria including literacy and educational standards that even some skilled whites could not have met and that effectively barred the vast majority of blacks from promotion.

One new criterion restricted licenses to handle explosives to South African citizens on "national security" grounds. That keeps immigrant mine workers from Lesotho, Mozambique and elsewhere, who make up a majority of the black work force, from the coveted blasters' jobs.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of unskilled black mine workers spend years separated from their families, living in hostels with double-bunk beds crammed into tiny rooms. Most are hundreds of miles from home and earn so little--currently an average of slightly more than $200 a month--that they usually do not see their families more than once a year.

The bachelor quarters, compounded by strict military-style management, contributes to the prison-like atmosphere of violence that afflicts many mine sites.

Until two years ago, retirement programs for black miners were non-existent. The NUM cites the case of one worker who spent 38 years migrating from his home 300 miles to work for the same mining company and who got a service honorarium of less than $1,000 for his loyalty.

Company officials have said that the migrant nature of the work force makes pension plans impractical, but NUM figures suggest that the work force, even if migrant, is quite stable, with the workers averaging seven to 10 years of service.

Racial inequities persist. At the end of a shift, white supervisors are brought up first, while their black underlings have to line up, sometimes for hours. The workers then have a few hours to sleep before lining up to go back down into the mines.

Even if they wanted to, most of these workers could not bring their families to live with them. The land that blacks are allowed to settle on around mining installations is tightly restricted, and housing is scarce and expensive.

While questioning union contentions that the hostels breed violence, mine officials acknowledge that such working conditions are less than ideal. But they say they are inevitable in an industry with so many migrant workers.

"Whoever controls the mining industry in this country, the mines will still have a migrant work force," says Peter Bunkell, a spokesman for the Chamber of Mines, "because they are situated in areas which are not close to major urban developments."

Still, he acknowledges that efforts to create more reasonable living quarters for black mineworkers are hampered by laws like the Group Areas Act, which prohibits blacks from living in designated non-black residential areas.

At layoff time, unionized workers generally get severance of no more than a week's pay for every year on the job. They are evicted from the hostels and sent home. If the layoffs continue, they are likely to harden the support of the ANC and the NUM for some form of nationalization of mineral resources or companies.

The NUM, which represents about 350,000 black mine workers, says the retrenchments demonstrate how cynically the white-run mining companies have exploited South Africa's wealth at the expense of its black majority.

That gold and other minerals are a declining asset is no secret, and these groups argue that the industry should long ago have made provisions for training laid-off workers and cushioning the effects of exhausted mines.

"They've got to take account of the fact that at some point the mines have got to close," said Marcel Golding, deputy general secretary of the NUM. "They can't tell us that they just don't have the money anymore, when for the past 10 years they've been paying handsome dividends to shareholders and appalling severance benefits to workers.

"They should be forced to build up a war chest for the future and provide skills training for workers forced to be retrenched," Golding added. "If they don't, it shows they don't care about a future South Africa, and the case for nationalization becomes more urgent."

Gold: South Arica's Truly Precious Metal

Price of Gold at end of each month on the London market. Feb. 25, 1985: $284.25 Dec. 14, 1987: $499.75 July 9, 1990: $358.15

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