LUSIKISIKI, South Africa – Oct 17 (Reuters) – South Africa’s system of migrant mine labour has come under renewed scrutiny, with government and company officials blaming it for a host ills bedeviling the industry and the country, including last year’s wave of violent wildcat strikes.
But there is no easy fix for such an entrenched feature of the social fabric and the cure is proving as bad as the disease as it means job losses on a grand scale with devastating consequences for what are now called the “labour-sending areas.”
This migrant labour force, which built a gold industry that has produced a third of the bullion ever mined, was sourced from “homelands” far from the shafts where most black South Africans were forced to to eke out an existence under apartheid.
Many have also come from neighbouring countries such as Lesotho and Swaziland. It generated vast profits, not least because migrants were paid bachelor wages even if they had families to feed, and controlled the movement of Africans as the workers were confined to hostels on mine property.
This system has outlasted white rule, which ended in 1994, and is now in the cross hairs of the ruling African National Congress and industry executives who bemoan its existence but offer few viable alternatives.
“It’s sad that the mining industry today still draws its labour force from rural and illiterate communities,” South Africa’s Mines Minister Susan Shabangu said at a mining conference in Cape Town in February.
Earlier this week Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe referred to the “the super-exploitation of unskilled workers” through an “archaic migrant labour system” and companies now routinely refer to it as a blight in their annual reports.
Many of South Africa’s social, economic and industrial problems have indeed been spawned by this apartheid relic.
For companies, the low skills levels of a workforce that is semi-literate and from subsistence farming backgrounds has constrained productivity.
Families have been uprooted and left fatherless as many miners have two households, one near the mines and the other back in their rural homesteads. Such arrangements have helped fan the region’s HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The typical miner has eight dependants, straining household incomes and fueling wage demands which have been exceeding inflation, escalating costs for mining companies and underpinning wider price preassures in Africa’s biggest economy.
OF HOSTELS AND HOUSING
Crowded hostels full of mostly young men are also blamed for a macho culture of violence and alcohol abuse. Companies have moved to providing housing allowances so miners can live off site but the building of homes has been slow say critics.
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