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  • Workplace change and frontline supervision in deep-level gold mining:managerial rhetoric or practice?
  • Sizwe Timothy Phakathi1 (bio)


In the colonial and apartheid years of gold mining, production supervisors were racist, bullies, autocratic and abusive. In many instances, underground workers were assaulted. The day-to-day running of the production process was often characterised by callous management practices and worker resistance. Moodie (2005) writes that violent workplace supervision underground in South African mines was common and taken for granted at least until the 1970s. As Moodie (2005:36) points out, 'in the mines, the "rhythm of work" had long since been maintained by violence alone...People learned by being beaten and once skilled or promoted, avoided the worst of it'. The white supervisors were assisted by black 'boss boys' (team leaders) in entrenching despotic forms of workplace supervision (Crush et al 1991, Moodie 1994).

The current competitive business environment calls for particular forms of frontline supervision that improve organisational performance. This is particularly true in the South African gold mining industry where the racial workplace hampered effective development and implementation of supervisory training programmes. In the apartheid years of gold mining, the day-to-day running of the production process routinely involved the abuse of power by supervisors to the detriment of the employment relationship. The post-apartheid gold mining regime and pressure to improve efficiency and productivity have necessitated different forms of supervisory and management practices in the South African gold mining industry. [End Page 181]

The sociology of work and management literature is dominated by studies conducted in advanced industrial countries, especially in British and American firms (Child and Partridge 1982, Hodson 2002). Not much is known about the shop-floor behaviour of management in productivity-enhancing programmes in the contemporary South African gold mining workplace. A lot of emphasis has been on the worker at the point of production. This is despite the history of racial forms of supervision and management that have characterised many South African gold mining firms.

This article examines the changing nature of frontline supervision in the light of the supervisory training course which was instituted to improve operational efficiency and productivity at AngloGold Ashanti's Great Noligwa mine. It assesses the extent to which the supervisory training was implemented in the underground gold mining workplace. Was the course really about empowering the frontline supervisor to improve workplace productivity or a mere information-sharing session between top managers and supervisors? This is the key question this article seeks to answer.

The article is divided into four sections:

  • • the first section provides a brief discussion of the research method that was used to collect data;

  • • the second is the review of literature on frontline supervision and workplace change processes;

  • • the third section discusses the mine's three-day supervisory training course;

  • • the fourth and final section assesses the implementation of the supervisory training in the underground mining workplace from the point of view of production supervisors (shift-bosses) and their superiors (mine captains).

Research methodology

This article is based on a six month participant observational research project conducted at Great Noligwa mine between April and September 2007. Having been granted permission by mine management and the representatives of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), I attended the supervisory training course as one of the mine employees holding a supervisory position.2 Open-ended interviews were conducted with shift-bosses and mine captains who attended the supervisory training course.

Furthermore, I lived in the mine hostel and went underground with underground gold miners to investigate the day-to-day running of the production process at the rock-face. This supplemented data collected from [End Page 182] observing and participating in the mine's supervisory training course. I wrote detailed notes of my observations and conversations with the informants in my fieldwork diary.

Frontline supervision and workplace change processes

To understand the role of the frontline supervisor in workplace change processes, it is important to understand the manner in which the supervisory role on the shop-floor has evolved over time. A number of writers have presented different accounts of the changing nature of frontline supervision in industrial organisations. As noted earlier, many of...


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pp. 181-204
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