Does the ‘legacy’ of Rhodes still plague the mining industry?

The poster, which decorates the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, reads: “Cecil Rhodes: architect of the migrant labour system responsible for silicosis.”

The still defaced statue of Cecil John Rhodes, in the Company’s Garden at Cape Town, is a firm reminder – if ever one was needed – that the relationship between South Africa’s mining sector, labour and government is as tense as it has ever been.

The poster, which decorates the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, reads: “Cecil Rhodes: architect of the migrant labour system responsible for silicosis.”

Developing a clear-cut definition for the ‘system’ is obviously difficult.

The activist group responsible for the defacing of the statue in question, Sonke, seeks to highlight the health issues that continue to plague the South African mining industry and singles out the industry for failing to take responsibility for the ailing health of those who are directly responsible for digging up South Africa’s wealth.

The immediate cause they are championing is silicosis, but the overriding theme is what they perceive to be the enduring culture of exploitation within the mining industry, where wealth is more important than health.

It is a theme that came to the fore yet again on Monday, when Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane visited the Lily Mine in Barbeton, to engage the mine’s workers in that region.

The Lily Mine is where three mine workers were trapped underground, when a supporting pillar collapsed last February. That matter is still not been adequately resolved as the remains of those miners have not been found. The families of the deceased have not been able to find any closure.

And that is ultimately the crux of the matter, for government and for activist groups. Are mines taking enough responsibility for their workers and are they being held to account?

There were 73 deaths in South Afican mines last year, an improvement from the 77 in 2015. The South African government wants to regulate, and it probably will regulate going forward.

However, the mining industry says it is bothered by the level of the uncertainty that accompanies these proposed regulations. It is also perturbed by the apparent failure by government to acknowledge the progress that has been made in the industry during the past two decades.

A subject of hot debate in the aftermath of that Mining Indaba is the proposed new mining charter by the South African government. The three tricky words that have been bandied about are radical economic transformation. That is a theme that came to the fore at the State of the Nation Address last Thursday – one that continues to make people nervous.

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