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The Militant, 24 August 1946

Larissa Reed

Blood, Tears and Sweat
in African Gold Mines

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 34, 24 August 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the South African gold mines fabulous fortunes are amassed by British absentee bondholders. The rapacious British ruling class squeezes enormous wealth out of the enslavement and exploitation of the native mine workers, who produce more than half the world’s gold. But for the mine toilers themselves, there is nothing but filth, squalor, disease and barbarous living conditions, comparable only to life in a concentration camp.

In a colony where the cost of living is higher even than it is in England, wages for native mine workers are about 50 cents a day. Out of this they must pay land rates, poll taxes and transportation.

Inside the mines, the natives labor 14 hours a day thousands of feet below the surface, in unhealthy and unsanitary conditions. Always undernourished, the mine workers become a ready prey to disease.

Native mine workers are indentured laborers. They are forced to sign contracts to work in the mines from 18 months to two years. During this period they are forced by law to separate from their wives and children, and live in the compounds on the mining property where they work.

These “compounds” are virtual concentration camps. A huge brick barracks, with a single entrance and central quadrangle, houses from 10,000 to 20,000 miners. They sleep 50 in a room on concrete bunks. Facilities for washing are dangerously inadequate. The food is usually unfit for human consumption.

For the period of their contract, they are cooped up in these prisons. South African “Pass Laws” govern and restrict the daily lives and freedom of all natives. These Pass Laws are doubly enforced in the mines. Daily, like criminals, they are marched to and from the shaft head. At the end of their contracts, they are sent home, virtually human wrecks. They return with only enough money to pay their land and poll taxes.

Under these conditions the average native miner manages to live only about five years in the mines. If he lives that long, he usually is stricken with silicosis and becomes tubercular. The remainder of his life is a lingering death.

High Mortality

Because of this high mortality rate, contracts for native mine labor are held down to a maximum of two years. The mining companies replenish their supplies of this speedily outworn labor through recruiting agents. These agents go to the towns and farms, holding out the prospect of “high wages.” For wages on the farms and in industry are even lower than in the mines.

In Johannesburg, the “City of Gold,” and other townships, where some of the miners are “recruited,” conditions are equally appalling. In these Black Ghettos, living quarters are mostly shacks of corrugated iron and bits of packing cases. The gaps are stuffed with old sacks and other rubbish. Sanitary facilities are inadequate or do not exist at all. In some hovels whole families live in one room. Water is drawn from a communal pump and diphtheria rages. In some areas, high barbed wire fences around the ghettos, prevent the inhabitants from leaving at night.

Pellagra Rampant

The cost of food is high. The underpaid native subsists largely on his mealie-meal, which is his staple diet almost unrelieved by other foods. Such a diet produces pellagra, a disease which is widely prevalent and which eventually produces insanity and death. Malnutrition and filth take a tremendous toll of human life. An average of five out of every ten children die within a month of being born.

Conditions in rural areas, where other miners are “recruited” are even worse. These natives live in mud huts and are clothed in sacks and rags. Millions of them starve. Under the pressure of hunger, they are compelled to “volunteer” by the thousands to sign contracts for work in the mines.

It was against these conditions that the 50,000 miners struck for union recognition and a $2 daily wage.

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