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South African Gold Mining Industry Review Research Paper

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Updated: Dec 28th, 2021


South Africa is one of the world and Africa’s leading gold producers. Due to the changes in ownership structures, gold mining has been earmarked as the prospective venture for empowering the native Africans. Harmony gold mining company has been at the fore front in championing for empowerment initiatives. It is owned by African Rainbow Minerals (De Kiewiet, 1978 p. 357). There has been dwindling quantity of gold produced from the South African gold mines with the production falling by 6.5% to 373, 074 kg in 2003. In 2003, gold accounted for 37% of the South African export revenue. Gold production in China has since surpassed the South African production capacity. Larger percentages of South African gold mines are underground. Increased mining depths and decline of quantities explored, has led to increase in price of products made from gold. This has led to restructuring of operations and hence retrenchment of workers (De Wet and McAllister, 1985 p.556). On several occasions, South African gold mining sector has been hit by poor gold prices, a strong Rand, and high operation costs. This research paper will focus on the sufferers and beneficiaries in South African gold industry. It will discuss the implications to the workers and mining companies particularly in the historical, social and economic perspectives.



The discovery of gold in South Africa in 1896 was prompted by diamond exploitation in Northern Cape. The aftermath of the discovery ushered a massive exodus of expatriates from Britain into South Africa where they were joined by semi skilled laborers from New Zealand, Australia and Canada (De Kiewiet, 1978 p. 340). Laborers then started streaming into regions where there were prospects of striking gold. Gold miners stayed in compounds where they were segregated into ethnic groups. They were contracted for 18 months with the possibility of renewing these contracts being very slim. Source areas for these miners fell into three political categories including men from Mozambique in black homelands, men from former High Commission including Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland and men who came from territories regarded as foreign countries like Tanzania.

The fact that labor in the gold mines entirely came from southern Africa region meant no prospects for laborers rising up the skills ladder hence retardation. This was further complicated by color barriers (South Africa Services, 2005 p. 23). Witwatersrand Labor Organization in 1900 was given the power to recruit laborers in Mozambique, the main source of labor. The wars of 1899-1902 lowered demand for black labor leading to loss of approximately 100, 000 jobs. The colored labor was considered as a source of labor but was never employed in the gold mine. This was according to structures that were set up by WNLA. In 1899 alone, two thirds of labor in the gold mine came from Mozambique, followed by Transvaal and the Cape. By 1903, the black labor force halved down from 1899 figure of 90,000. Native Recruiting Corporation was formed in 1912 to help in cooperative recruitment exercise of workers. At this time Mozambique was still the chief source of labor in the South African gold mines.

In 1977, amalgamation of NRC with WNLA saw the birth of The Employment Bureau of Africa which up to now recruits black mine workers from the southern Africa. Before miners could be allowed to take up jobs in mining firms they were subjected to lengthy medical check ups. In 1907, out of 100, 000 gold miners, 470 succumbed to work related hazards in underground mines. Most of these workers contracted pneumonia, a reason why workers from northern Mozambique were not recruited. Apart from pneumonia, other leading causes of death were TB, and diarrhoeal diseases (South Africa Revenue Services, 1999 p.9). Because of the reduction in African labor, Chinese migrant workers were brought in between 1904-1907. This idea was short lived as Chinese migrant workers returned home by 1910 due to political shock waves in Britain. The earlier mine strike of 1913, the Afrikaner rebellion of 1914, the protests of Gandhi, and the General strike of 1914 were all due to myriad grievances the mine workers had to contend with.

Between 1914 and 1918, the number of workers in the mining industry stabilized, despite the fact that there were ups and downs which were realized during this period. In the depression years, the number of black workers kept rising. In the eve of World War II, workers became dissatisfied and left the industry. They decried poor working conditions. In 1965 an accident occurred in the Coalbrook North Colliery where 435 men perished. In 1974, 74 Malawian mine workers died in a plane crash with the crew members on board. This led to imposition of ban on any Malawian national who intended to work in the South African gold mines. This ban affected a total of 129 000 Malawians. The unemployment made men and their families to be virtually destitute. In a bid to make advances, Africans started forming trade unions like National Union of Mine Workers that was established in 1983. In 1985, there was decreased profitability of most gold mines, leading to decrease in black labor force. This occasioned escalating unemployment indices; rising crime levels, heavy import tariffs, higher taxation, and fall in foreign investment.

Sociological aspects

South African gold mines have colloquially been referred to as ‘TB factory’ by health activists and government department in-charge of health. The mining magnets have historically been adamant to come up with amicable avenues to avert the HIV/ AIDS and TB menace. Due to poor ventilation in the gold mines and hostels, the chances of mine workers contracting tuberculosis has been very high. Persistence of conditions such as dust particles, inadequate ventilation and knowledge on the etiology and prognosis of tuberculosis has resulted in the massive increase in the number of cases in the past few decades. Moreover, silica dust increases ones chances of contracting TB (Odendai, 2010, para. 4). Commuting in between the gold mines and living houses makes it very difficult to diagnose a mine worker with TB. Such conditions also make it very difficult for victims of TB who are on medication to take their drugs regularly. Mine workers do not enjoy one of the best health care services as the employers do not consistently undertake regular screening for tuberculosis among the workers. TB screening is always inconsistent and unverified owing to the negligence and arrogance on the part of the mining companies.

According to Odendai (2010, para. 2-3), the mining sector was found to be one century in its fight against the TB menace. In line with this, clinicians have regarded South Africa as the single largest exporter of tuberculosis in the southern region of Africa. The ‘’TB factory’’ was also blamed for bringing massive suffering, instead of offering economic relief, to hundreds of thousands of southerners who have worked in the mines in more then a century of their operations (Odendai, 2010, para. 2). With a TB incidence of about 3000 t0 7000 per every 100000 miners makes South Africa mining sector ranks it as the highest in the world. More importantly, the annual TB incidence of 972 per every 100000 persons has been regarded alarming considering the fact that the disease is declared as an emergency when 250 cases are reported in a similar population. The TB incidence in the South African gold mines has had devastating effects on the neighboring countries like Lesotho which economically depend on South Africa. Fifteen per cent of deaths in Lesotho are caused by TB. 40% of TB patients in Lesotho hospitals confess to have once worked in South African gold mines (Wilson, 1972 p.293). Unfortunately, the proprietors of these gold mines have refused to be accountable to the statistics that is currently witnessed in Lesotho.

Although a rare disease in majority of the developed countries, silicosis has continually affected the miners in South Africa mining industry. The dust from the gold mines has ensured the persistence of the occupational disease especially in the mining industry. In addition, the combination of silicosis and tuberculosis has taken toll of the miners. According to Murray, a 2-30 fold increase in TB progressing to active stage has been reported in miners suffering from silicosis disorders (Oxford Business Group, 2008, p. 164). The review further noted that the risk of contracting TB is also greatly increased by the risks of suffering from either HIV or silicosis. The association between the three diseases has caused enormous suffering to the miners particularly those engaging in social activities such as smoking and drinking thereby resulting in economic challenges for their families. McCollouch (2009, p. 233) noted that an upward trend in the cases of silicosis with an estimated 1900 cases expected to occur in 2009.

Women have of late taken to mining and their number is slowly overwhelming men. However, male dominance has continued to be witnessed fostered by patriarchal organizational culture. This has encouraged discrimination based on gender. The technologies used in the gold mines are designed for men and therefore pose both physical and physiological challenges to women. Women in the gold mine do not get managerial positions but if they get, their white counterparts are more favored. Sexual harassment to female labor force is a historical affair even as many of them have chosen to keep quite about it so that they continue being in the payroll of these gold mining companies (Feinstein, 2005, p. 110). Men working in the gold mines have been forced to live in single –sex hostels. Female workers are often forced to wake up as early as 3am: a risk to their safety, to catch vehicles that commute between their homes and their work places. From 1997, women have been forced to work in underground mines (Feinstein, 2005, p. 110). Moreover, mechanization has led to massive job losses for mine workers.

Economic aspects

Workers in the mining industry are usually provided with meager salaries for their work and effort. The decline in the world price of gold metal couple with the decimation of reserves has ensured a sustained downward trend in the salary perks. Disparities between the black and the colored people continue to widen with the former staging regular demonstrations in a bid to force the gold mining companies to increase their salaries and improve the working conditions in the mines. The miners live in abject poverty despite working in difficult conditions that predispose them to severe occupational diseases and disabilities.



The inception of diamond mining opened South Africa to further exploration thus leading to influx of British citizens after gold was struck in the 19th century. The discovery of gold was instrumental in upping tensions between the Boers and the British which resulted in a bitter war whereby the latter was victorious in gaining control of the vast mineral deposits in Witwatersrand. Political conflicts characterized the latter decades of 19th century with the legitimate government of South Africa republic receiving attacks from all corners. In particular, his desire to construct a rail linking to east Africa was met with hostility by the British merchants who felt that their commercial interests were under threat (Fine & Rustomjee, 1996, p. 56). The mine owners, major beneficiaries of the gold mining business, successfully pushed for tax emption for English speaking populations involved in gold ports and who had no need of reinvesting the same in South Africa. The defeat of the Boers in subsequent fights brought the South African republic under the leadership of the British Empire. The white managed mining companies brought many expatriates from Britain while reducing the Afrikaners to work as laborers receiving meager wages. More importantly, a hug chunk of the gold profits was reinvested outside the mining zones thereby leading to dilapidation of social amenities and deplorable working conditions in the mines (De Kiewiet, 1978). In contrast, the managers and expatriates were appropriately remunerated for their services and enjoyed better working conditions.

Social aspects

High profits from the sale of gold were shared among the executives of the companies, who were mainly from Britain (Oxford Business Group, 2008, p. 143). With the reduction on taxation on the part of gold mining companies, their soaring profits were utilized in building cozy and extravagant house for the managers and their top expatriates (Feinstein, 2005, p. 106). Provision of social amenities in those zones was prioritized in order to ensure comfort for them. More importantly, their children were taken to schools in Britain where they received good education.

Economical aspects

Gold mining industries in South Africa are taxed differently from other companies. They are taxed on a two tier system. The taxation formular is meant to encourage mining of marginal gold ores. These gold mining companies are subjected to tax tunnel, a form of tax free revenue portion. This goes against the equity principle of taxation. This taxation system exempts the gold mining companies from paying the actual taxes. This further enriches these companies. However, the blacks who form 70% of the mines labor force continue to languish in poverty due to poor remunerations they get. It is absurd that only 5% of the blacks hold managerial positions in gold mining industries despite the fact that they form the bulk of labor force. Even as the gold prices continue to appreciate from US $ 35 in 1950 to US $ 409.33 in 2004 in the world market, little has changed in the earnings of the workers (Statistics Canada, 2004 p.1).

Continued growth in the gold mining sector was witnessed in the last century. The industry substantially contributed to the growth of national economic value by three fold in the early years of 20th century. The enormous revenue received as a result of gold exports provided capital that was essential in the purchase of sophisticated machines used in expanding mining and manufacturing sectors. Although the gold prices were unpredictable coupled with the sky rocketing costs of production, the mining companies still made record profits owing to the meager salaries paid to black workers and benefits accrued by their failure to cater for the housing and foodstuffs of the workforce (Feinstein, 2005, p. 62). In addition, their reliance on migrant labor who worked for a limited period was instrumental in evading responsibility of morbidities brought about by exposure to the bad working conditions. While the companies continued to reap off the workers, the loss in terms of economic value to the country and social impacts on the workers family was enormous taking into account the increased death rates in the workers after returning to their homes.


Gold mining companies were discriminatory and exploitative in nature, resulting to underpayment of black labor compared to white labor. In tandem with their policies to maximize profits, they colluded in recruiting black workers at very low rates that were more than 10 times less than the white labor’s (Feinstein, 2005, p. 51). Due to the deplorable working conditions and low salaries, the workers resulted into forming workers union to agitate for their rights in the early and mid 20th century. In retaliation, the government passed war measures that illegalized all strikes by black workers (Wilson, 1972, p. 178). In contrast, the white labor activities were unaffected hence far reaching reforms in form of reviews of their salaries occurred severally in the first half of the 20th century. Strikes were usually dismantled through force and unprecedented brutality. However, the brutality did not deter the black workers under the umbrella of African mine workers union to push for higher wages in 1943 thereby resulting in illegalizing of all strikes involving black workers. Arm twisting, reluctance to meet workers demands and arrest of union leaders served as a catalyst for a massive strike that grounded mining operations in 1946 (Wilson, 1972, p. 179). The ensuing brutality claimed several lives and torture but, nonetheless, the mining companies reluctantly improved the wages with subsequent reviews occurring in the subsequent years.

Political developments in the 1960 have ushered in strong trade unions that embarked on fighting for improvements in working conditions and against racial discrimination in the workplace (South African Chamber of Mines, 2010, p. 12). In tandem, the government embarked on crackdowns targeting the leaders and violence that resulted in loss of lives during major strikes. Trade unions played significant role until the apartheid regime was dismantled in 1990’s where the blacks started enjoying similar privileges, albeit at a smaller scale. Currently, with the lift of bans on strikes, trade unions have continually utilized collective bargaining, dialogues and strikes to agitate for their rights. More importantly, the government has played tough when dealing with the mining companies forcing them to provide standard working conditions to abate the TB, silicosis and HIV/AIDS menace. According to Odendai, several interventional measures such as production of guidelines, preventive therapy, risk mitigation, establishment of a TB review tool and compensation fund have been enforced by the government in liaison with other stakeholders (2010, para. 4-8).

Considering the magnitude of the situation, critics are questioning its efficacy in curtailing incidences of the diseases while ensuring sustained and standard working conditions. International pressure has enhanced the commitment of the government in addressing the miners working condition with regard to the enormity of the TB menace, especially with the extremely alarming rates and emergence of HIV/AIDS and multi-drug resistant TB. As a preventive measure, the government has been put on the spotlight thereby forcing it to recommend the phasing out of hostels and embracement of knowledge, practice intertwined with technology (De Wet & McAllister, 1985, p. 556). Overall, the trade unions in liaisons with international non-governmental organizations dealing with workers and human rights have embarked on lobbying, advocacy and industrial action on mining companies to fast track the implementation of safe workplace guidelines in order to safeguard the safety of the workers.


Black mine workers have faced numerous challenges in the South African gold mines. Problems faced by these laborers include poor working conditions which make them contract infections like TB and pneumonia. Sexual exploitation which has led to increased rate of HIV infection has been there but down played. There has been lack of proper means of transportation for the workers and poor housing facilities. Black workers especially the women have suffered from gender disparities where patriarchal prejudices have hindered the progress of the female labor force. Promotion into managerial positions has also been determined by racial inclinations. On the other hand, the white workers have benefited through fat salaries and exorbitant profits while ensuring that the black workers work under deplorable conditions. Workers unions played a large role in fighting for the increment of workers salaries to be proportionate to magnitude of work and comparable to fellow white workers. racial and gender discrimination and deplorable working conditions have put south Africa in a precarious position due to the disease burden brought by gold mining. While mitigation are gaining momentum, the response came a bit too late. In addition, the expected litigation on targeting the mining companies may hurt their operations in the long term. Unless, the disparities in access to labor and factors of production are addressed, South Africa will still lag behind in ensuring a fair society where workers are respected by the employers.

Reference List

  1. De Kiewiet, C.W. (1978). A History of South Africa, Social and Economic. London: HNP.
  2. De Wet, J.C. and McAllister, P.A. (1985). Betterment planning and its consequences. South Africa Journal of Science, 81: 555–558.
  3. Feinstein, C. (2005). An Economic History of South Africa: Conquest, Discrimination, and Development (Ellen McArthur Lectures). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Fine, B. & Rustomjee, Z. (1996). The political economy of South Africa. From minerals energy complex to industrialization. London: West view Press.
  5. McCulloch, J. (2009). Counting the Cost: Gold Mining and Occupational Disease in Contemporary South Africa. African Affairs, 108(431), 221-240.
  6. Murray, J & Ross, M. (2004). Occupational respiratory disease in mining. Occupational Medicine, 54, 304-310.
  7. Odendai, J. (2010). South African gold mines a ‘TB factory’, activist claims.
  8. Oxford Business Group. (2008). The Report: South Africa 2008. London: Oxford Business Group.
  9. South African Chamber of Mines. (2010). Satellite Session: TB and the Mining Industry. 2nd South African TB Conference, Durban, 1-4 June 2010.
  10. South African Revenue Services. (2005). Budget Tax Proposals 2005/6. Pretoria: South African Revenue Services.
  11. South African Revenue Services. (1999). Budget Tax Proposals 1999. Pretoria: South African Revenue Services.
  12. Statistics Canada. (2004). Fixed Assets. Toronto: Statistics Canada.
  13. Wilson, F. (1972). Labour in the South African Gold Mines, 1911–1969. African Studies Series No.6. London: Cambridge Univ. Press. Print.
  14. South African Chamber of Mines. (2010). Satellite Session: TB and the Mining Industry. 2nd South African TB Conference, Durban, 1-4 June 2010.
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