SA’s mining problem is one that runs deep – by Ray Hartley (Business Day Live- June 8, 2014)

THREE-and-a-half kilometres underground, no one can hear you scream, I tell myself as the drills hammer their way through solid rock. I am at the deepest point of Driefontein’s No 5 shaft, west of Johannesburg.

It is a work environment like no other. A rock-drill operator named Whitey is king. His kingdom is a jagged tunnel known as a panel, blasted out of the battleship-grey rock where the gold lies.

The panel’s low roof forces you into a crouch. The inclined floor is covered with loose rock, the detritus of previous advances into the earth. The rockface temperature approaches 60°C, and although mines are required to cool the stopes to about 28°C, humidity approaching 100% causes continuous and heavy perspiration. It is a cramped, claustrophobic space shared by stripped-down workers, rusted drilling machines and rock fragments.

Around Whitey, helmeted mineworkers toil in a strange, slow silence. Some spray-paint red dots on the rockface where holes must be drilled for blasting. Others attach air and water hoses to his rust-brown drilling machine, which has “AK47” as a nickname.

Earplugs seem a pathetic defence against the screaming, grinding and crunching of the drill bit as it fights its way into the rock, and water sprays from the stuttering machine.

When the hole is finally deep enough, the crouching crew and Whitey move on to the next site.

Talk of replacing these workers with machines suddenly seems ludicrous. This, I realise, is the only way to get gold out of the ground at this depth.

Men, drilling machines and hard, hard labour under hundreds of tons of rock with the sweat pouring off their bodies in rivers.

When the holes have been drilled, explosive charges are placed in them and stopped up. The area will be cleared, and the charges detonated.

The blast will shatter the face of the panel, freeing shards of rock. That rock will be carried by people and machines to the surface where it will be crushed to free tiny bits of gold.

To get to the panel, I had to put on safety gear: overalls, boots, knee guards, elbow guards, helmet, light and emergency breathing apparatus.

Then I stood in a dark, rattling cage as it descended 1.7km down one shaft. After a short walk, I went into another cage and descended a further 1.8km.

I realised that I had just travelled the same distance as my morning commute from Parkview to Rosebank through Joburg’s tree-lined streets. It seems ludicrous that I had travelled the same distance straight down into the earth in cages suspended on steel cables.

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