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Mining Gold and Manufacturing Ignorance

By Pavla Miller, author of Mining Gold and Manufacturing Ignorance

Five years ago, I inherited a project detailing the highly questionable practices of gold mining companies in southern Africa. My late partner, Jock McCulloch, researched and wrote the bulk of this book over the previous decade. The companies, he argued, hid evidence of a massive epidemic of TB and silicosis among miners to sustain their profitability. A prominent historian of colonialism and occupational health, Jock died from mesothelioma in 2018. His fatal exposure to asbestos almost certainly occurred in the 1990s, while researching the history of asbestos mining.

Jock’s draft manuscript had a compelling storyline. For most of the twentieth century, South Africa’s gold mines were the most profitable sector of the national economy. Gold was the single most important export, and gold mining the largest employer. At their peak in 1986, the mines employed 534,000 workers. Extracting the low-grade ore only seemed possible if wages of the huge workforce were kept very low. Since most locals could get better pay in other occupations, they preferred to find employment elsewhere. The resulting chronic shortages of labour – and the companies’ increasing reliance on migrant workers – were compounded by the health risks then associated with mining. It is probable that in the mid-1920s, the South African industry accepted that it was impossible to engineer dust out of the mines and that silicosis and tuberculosis, especially among migrant workers, was inevitable. If the full extent of occupational disease became known, most of the mines might have to close.

To deal with such challenges, the gold mines pioneered techniques, later adopted and refined by asbestos and tobacco industries, for hiding the evidence of disease and denying employees, their families and communities compensation. In the late nineteenth century, it was common knowledge that people working with quartz, such as cutlery grinders, were almost certain to develop occupational lung disease. It was this medical orthodoxy that the companies set out to undermine. The resulting collusion between the state and the industry in suppressing the knowledge of risk, the publication of misleading data, and the systematic downplaying of the risk of silicosis, had far-reaching consequences. Without it oscillating migration, which saw the fittest men leave for the mines and return home seriously ill, would probably have been politically unsustainable. In fostering public ignorance about the dangers of silica dust, the mining companies contributed to the current epidemic of silicosis among manufactured stone workers.

Jock originally crafted this history as a detective novel. A complicated crime is gradually untangled, the truth comes out, and the culprits are brought to justice. In the five years it took me to complete and publish the manuscript, the ending became more ambiguous.

In the 1980s, with the fall of apartheid and achievement of majority rule in South Africa, independent researchers began uncovering the full extent of uncompensated occupational injury. In some groups of miners, disease rates were shown to be one hundred times greater than those reported, for decades, in official statistics. Armed with such evidence, several legal firms sued the mining companies for damages. Their separate cases were eventually amalgamated into one massive class action before the South African High Court. Jock died just before the case was settled, and up to half a million miners became entitled to substantial compensation for occupational injury.   

The Tshiamiso Trust was set up to implement this pathbreaking settlement. Since it began functioning in 2020, lodgement offices were opened in South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, eSwatini and Botswana. By the beginning of May 2023, 12,100 claims, amounting to an equivalent of over 89 million Australian dollars, have been paid. And yet, as with previous interventions into miners’ occupational health, the terms under which the Trust was set up and operates are indelibly marked by contestation and compromise. Many sick miners have been denied compensation. Despite efforts to engage with communities in the old labour-sending regions, progress is slow. Problems include the remoteness of labour sending areas, poor and expensive transport and communication systems, language and literacy barriers, and the poor state of medical and diagnostic services. Claimants from outside of South Africa are particularly affected. Although workers from Mozambique formed between a tenth and a quarter of the mine workforce between 1971 and 1999, by May 2023 only 12 received compensation. Just 17 of the claimants from Botswana, 32 from eSwatini and none from Malawi have reached the same stage.1

The book has paid tribute to those who warned against looming health crises, advocated for miners, and attempted to stem the tide of occupational lung disease. Today, this work is continued by organisations such as the Justice for Miners Campaign. In assisting those injured in South Africa’s process of wealth accumulation, proposing alternative solutions to problems faced by the Tshiamiso Trust and mobilising local communities, they also help heal injuries to the region’s civil society.

Mining Gold and Manufacturing Ignorance: Occupational Lung Disease and the Buying and Selling of Labour in Southern Africa, is available open access via SpringerLink.


[1] Progress report – Tshiamiso Trust