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  • Gold Mining Today
  • Sizwe Timothy Phakathi (bio)

In their 1992 article published in Transformation 20, Jean Leger and Martin Nicol addressed the following question: What could be done to ensure the survival of gold mining as a generator of wealth, export revenue and provider of employment, given a stagnant gold price, a 15.5 per cent inflation rate and ingrained employment inequities?

The authors raised an important question given the fact that the gold mining industry was the bedrock of South Africa’s industrialisation and economic development (Lipton 1985, Trapido 1975). Indeed the 1990s was an era of low gold price. South Africa’s gold mining sector went through a severe gold slump. As Leger and Nicol (1992) point out, the productivity of the gold mining industry was being threatened by the falling price of gold, rising working costs, declining levels of gold production and shrinking levels of employment. A number of gold mines became marginal as the gold mining firms found it extremely difficult to mine gold profitably. This had serious repercussions for the country’s gold mining sector as a generator of employment and source of revenue not only for South Africa but also neighbouring countries (Crush and James 1995, Harrington et al 2004, Malherbe and Segal 2000, Nattrass 1994, Nattrass 1995, Seidman 1993, Seidman 1997).

The gold mining crisis of the 1990s was the cause of concern not only for the mine employers but also for the state and organised labour. Drastic measures were indeed required to deal with the crisis and restructure the gold mining industry in ways that could generate wealth, revenue and preserve employment. The challenge, however, as Leger and Nicol (1992) note, was the manner in which the restructuring of the gold mining industry was to be forged given the history of colonial and apartheid labour practices.

Since the 1990s, a lot has happened in the South African gold mining industry. I find Leger and Nicol’s (1992) article interesting and important for [End Page 185] several reasons. The article highlights the role of organised labour in the transformation of the gold mining workplace prior to the first non-racial elections held on April 27, 1994 (Adler 2000, Adler and Webster 1995, 2000, Buhlungu 2006, Bezuidenhout and Buhlungu 2010, Buhlungu and Bezuidenhout 2008). The authors point out that the article was drawn from a paper written for the COSATU Economic Trends Group which had met with the African National Congress (ANC) in Harare in 1990. The paper was also discussed at the Summit on the Future of the Mining Industry held on June 3, 1991 collaboratively convened by trade unions, mine owners and government.

South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy and integration into the competitive global economy of the 1990s rendered the apartheid workplace regime obsolete (Von Holdt 2003, Webster and Omar 2003, Webster and Von Holdt 2005). The crisis and challenges of mining gold at a profit could no longer be offset by means of coercive, racial and cheap labour practices. The 1990s heralded a new labour regime on South African gold mines. Owing to the labour movement’s struggle against a repressive labour regime and apartheid in general, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), became an influential actor in the restructuring of the gold mining industry in the 1990s.

In 1995, relentless pressure from the NUM persuaded the mine employers and government to establish the Leon Commission of Inquiry into safety and health in the South African mining industry. This was the first and by far the most comprehensive Commission of Inquiry to look into safety and health in the South African mining industry for more than 30 years. The recommendations of the Leon Commission of Inquiry culminated in the drafting of the Mine Health and Safety Act (MHSA) of 1996. For the first time in the history of the South African mining industry, this Act entrenched the right of workers to refuse to do dangerous work as one of the means with which to create a healthy, safe and productive mining industry (see Leon Commission Report 1995).

In response to the falling price of gold, declining levels of gold production, rising working costs and declining levels of employment...


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