- South Africa’s Gold Mines & the Politics of Silicosis by Jock McColloch
In South Africa’s Gold Mines & the Politics of Silicosis, Jock McColloch presents a striking analysis of migrant labor and miners’ health under apartheid. For much of the twentieth century, the Rand gold mines had an international reputation for workers’ safety and health. The South African government and the Chamber of Mines invested in medical research, often making this data available overseas. McColloch shows that international admirers of South African mines and mine safety were unaware of the migrant labor situation or how racialized the data collection and medical inspections were. A paradox resulted by which there was intense debate about silicosis and tuberculosis in gold mines, but the disease burden remained invisible. McColloch argues that medical costs were externalized onto the migrant labor-sending areas, often in Malawi and Mozambique (p. 161). McColloch makes clear that the profitability of South Africa’s gold mines relied on cheap, migrant labor from the rural areas and neighboring colonies. The mines were actually of very low grade: three tons of ore produced roughly one ounce of gold (p. 7). These deposits would not be profitable in Australia or North America due to higher wages and tighter labor laws. In addition, he shows the interconnections between South African government and the mining conglomerates; the state depended on mine taxation, while the mines relied on state infrastructure and labor recruitment. Policies and practices regarding the mines were inherently tied to questions about migrant labor.
Miners’ health, particularly silicosis and tuberculosis, becomes a unique lens through which one can contextualize migrant labor and the apartheid political system. The Rand mines have a particularly high silica content in the ore and because of South Africa’s racialized labor system [End Page 249] migrant Africans more than likely worked in underground positions. This put them in regular contact with silica dust, which when inhaled irritates and scars the upper lobes of the lung. The lung damage on its own could kill a miner in a few years (p. 2). To complicate the issue further, silicosis increases the likelihood of a miner contracting tuberculosis, as it affects the same parts of the lung. Therefore, the South African government and the mining corporations invested heavily in research to find affordable ways to mitigate this issue; they also looked to hide or diminish the controversy with public relations campaigns. The Witwatersrand Native Labour Association and the Chamber of Mines requested pre- and post-employment medical examinations to check if the miners were fit to work or fit to be repatriated to the sending areas. Overworked mine doctors reportedly conducted one exam every two minutes; therefore, only the worst possible cases of silicosis and/or tuberculosis were granted medical treatment or monetary compensation (p. 111). Most “native laborers” in poor health were repatriated to their kraals where they more than likely died of tuberculosis, often spreading it to family and neighbors.
McColloch shows that mine doctors were convinced that tuberculosis was not an occupational condition, rather an effect of “poor hygiene,” “wearing of European clothes,” and the lack of immunity on the part of rural Africans (p. 63). Mine doctors sought to hide the synergy between silicosis and tuberculosis, as it allowed the health burden to be externalized to the rural areas and neighboring colonies. Most hospitals in recruiting areas reported 70 percent of tuberculosis cases to be former miners (p. 144). In addition, Portuguese authorities in Mozambique reported that tuberculosis was being spread by miners repatriated to their villages (p. 60). Repatriating sick and injured miners was not technically illegal, but it went against most public health practices. McColloch makes clear, however, that repatriating sick and injured mines was in the interest of most mines on the Rand. In his words: “The failures of the South African system of medical surveillance, data collection and compensation underpinned the commercial success of the nation’s most important industry. The costs of production were shifted to rural communities within and outside South Africa’s borders” (p. 161).