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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Constitutional Court affirms Reparations for Ex-workers

Mine Veteran compensation for occupational diseases

     The recent ruling by the Constitutional Court ruled that mine veterans suffering from lung diseases are eligible to claim compensation directly from the companies they worked with. This overturned the status quo in which miners suffering from debilitating lung diseases were compensated by the Occupational Diseases in Mineworkers with a one-off compensation of less than R25,000. This let the mines bosses off the hook from any further responsibility. But the Constitutional Court turned this up side down and ruled that this indemnity from further responsibility to pay adequate compensation in unconstitutional. It also ruled that R2,6 million is an adequate and fair compensation.

      While this is good news the mine veterans are still responsible to produce proof that they are suffering from phthisis. This is a snag for many. The law stipulates that once every two years miners who leave service have their lungs x-rayed. This never happens. So as things now stand, mine veterans have to ensure that they are medically examined. Besides this all the hassles currently being experienced like getting proof of service, identity papers are still the responsibility of the mine veteran. In short, the Constitutional Court has opened a window of opportunity this is still subject to a long process that can take up to five years to go through the High Court. Secondly, the need for medical examinations can still present a significant stumbling block for mine veterans.

     While it true that the Chamber of Mines as well as Teba say that they are 100% up-to-date with their documentation relating to each and every single miner  over the last century, we have reason to doubt that. Both these organizations representing mine bosses admit that up to 70% of the workers they have on their books are no long traceable.

     The point is that the compensation claims are real and we have to fight for them. We still have a far way to go. It is going to be an uphill battle!

Jubilee Eastern Cape

 Soon after the first democratic elections in 1994 there was concern that the A N C government would come under intense pressure to repay the debts made by the Apartheid Government. To pressurize the A NC Not to repay the Apartheid debt,  a national movement called “Jubilee South Africa” advocating that the new government under Nelson Mandela not repay these debts which at that time amounted to R 40 billion.

      The motivation is clear. The imposition of taxes on the black people was a form of debt slavery meant to drive the people off the land to work in the mines. While mining companies such as Anglo American earned billions in profits, black workers were paid almost nothing  Most of the earnings of the Gold Mining Companies ended up in the pockets of rich shareholders over seas.

     Today these gold mining companies, when confronted by these injustices they like to reply that they not only scored nicely in profits, but built up cities like Johannesburg and left infrastructure like roads and railways which make South Africa what it is today.

     These mining companies forget to say that they paid the black workers nothing. Also they refuse to respond when reminded that blacks in general had no vote and that while it is true that rich cities were built, this only happened at the expense of stealing the land and impoverishing the rural areas, later to be called “Bantustans”. 
     So the case for objectionable debt slavery of the black people is well motivated. If the Mining Companies say that they were the backbone of the South African economy, the truth is that cheap black labor was the backbone of mining in South Africa.

      Unfortunately the Mbeki government refused to listen to the wisdom to scrap the apartheid debt. So this evil debt, which is even against what the Bible tells in Leviticus Chapter 25, which calls on debt cancellation and land restoration every Sabbath year, is still being repaid today.

     Thabo Mbeki strongly opposed it, and the Jubilee South Africa campaign fell apart. There was no progress and the Mbeki government strongly opposed it. This was due to the A N C government’s stubbornness to satisfy the big overseas companies at all costs.

     In 2009 Jubilee South Africa broke up. But because of a number of projects that were being driven by Jubilee Eastern Cape (JEC), these were taken together and placed in a “safety net”: JEC registered with the Dept. of Social Development and has its own IPO number.     

     So Jubilee Eastern Cape is now registered and is independent of any other organization. Jubilee South Africa still exists as an umbrella body, but has no direct connection with JEC.  
     These projects relate to advocacy work for ex-mine workers, stimulating community volunteers/marshals, and ensuring safe communities through participation in Community Policing Forums.


     A number of facts of great concern emerge from Mbhodamo’s testimony. First, he was never examined by x-ray for lung disease. Second, while he never was sick or lost a day at work underground, he and the full complement of underground workers were given “pills” without explanation. “It was like a farmer dosing his sheep”, he said.
      Mine Companies are doing no favors in paying adequate compensation for diseases like phthisis. According to the Constitutional Court compensation in the order of R 2 million is fair for lost working years, suffering and medical costs.   In the end we are speaking of reparations that have to be made to their families and above all, to compensate for the underdevelopment of their communities caused by the evil migrant labour system!! 

 Oral History Project  / Jubilee Eastern Cape / Non Profit Organization  Nr. 077-412-NPO

Monday, April 25, 2011

Tracking through Mziwandile Yawa's mining career

Mziwandile Yawa

      Mziwandile Yawa, a veteran of a long and arduous mining career, was born in Newlands, in 1940. He started his regular stints on the gold mines when he was 18 years old. The first mine he worked on was at Stilfontein Gold Mine. He had numerous stints during his migrant career on different mines. These included East Daggafontein Gold Mining and ending his career as Team Leader at Elsburg Gold Mines, on the Far West Rand

     Working on these specific mines had nothing to do with personal preferences. Nor did reputations of the mines, concerning cruel or patronizing or otherwise mine managers, good or bad mine conditions on different have anything to do with the choices of where he would work. He was simply instructed by the recruiting agency of the Chamber of Mines, TEBA, and told where he would work. So the levels of danger associated with individual gold mines so often spoken about by people coming and going to the mines made a very mixed bag of emotions for young men intending to follow in the footsteps of their peers. Sometimes you had heaven in one mine, where ground conditions were safe, where ventilation was good and working places cool or distances to be travelled from the shaft station to working station short and easy; but more often with most mines, and especially the newer one's, the migrant workers would unwittingly end up in hell, in the belly of the earth, hot as hades and rockfall occurrences killing workers in the order of the day. This was especially so at Stilfontein Gold Mine where a single siesmic event saw the mine closed down for good. But this happened long after Mziwandile was through with his career, back at home with his people in Newlands, muttering . . . "thank God, I was not killed or had any of my workers under my supervision killed"

Choice of what mine migrants would work was predetermined by the profit motif of the mining bosses. Pay was determined by the monopolistic mine bosses and made no provision for compensatory arrangements for working in safer or more dangerous mines.   The Chamber of Mines acted as the voice of all mine owners setting stringent labour regulations that were implemented by all the mines, as well as by its employment arm, TEBA. If any mine had a labour shortage then the new recruit was sent there.

     TEBA played a central role in the lives of migrant miners. All records from the respective mines were centralized in TEBA offices. These records included job records of migrants, performance records and medical records. Besides social networks among the miners themselves, TEBA was the official means of communication between migrants and their families at home in the rural areas. In his old day Mziwandile laments this: “I have no records to show, nothing to go by to validate my long career on the mines. I have no history. I do not even have pay slips because everything was paid to TEBA who then made the money available to me via their East London office”. Indeed, this is a very sore point for many mine migrants. Many feel that they are owed money, especially compensation for injuries or occupational disease related to working in dangerous rockfall situations and dusty working places. But TEBA, and even the Chamber of Mines itself, seem to have migrated all these records and promises to another planet. Black miners feel robbed of their life’s work, cast aside, forgotten and ignored with hardly even a mention of the iniquities of their labour conditions in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Mine owners never made a proper confession for these evils before the TRC.       

     It was not for nothing that among the black migrant workers there were, and still are powerful personalities and legends. Mziwandile Yawa certainly is a legend carrying under his skin a history of wage slavery that shocked the civilized world. Like in his own youth, Mziwandile was enthralled and eager to “join the mines”. While gruesome, it was an adventure into the unknown. But some young men, after doing only one contract of work on the mines, returned home never to return to that hell again. They came back disenchanted, and often felt disgraced in their communities and by their peers for "giving up". Suicide of young recruits on the mines was common. For many, going to the mines established manhood. While financial considerations to work on the mines certainly was an issue, it actual fact it was more moral persuasion in what Dunbar Moodie classified as a "moral economy" providing a spacial tpe of working environment involving, communal agriculture and the mine owners. Outside of the mines the barest of a rural occupation was possible such as herding cattle, best left to younger boys. Outside of mining or remaining in the rural areas, the only employment around the towns of the Border Region was either on the Railways or in the Harbour. These employment opportunities were scarce.
besides, in such employment there was no adventure, no social status to be achieved. These moral persuasions made migrant labour extremely profitable for the mine owners. As mine exploiters explained, the low wages paid were not wages as such, but doing the migrants a favour by supplementing their earnings from agriculture in the rural areas.          

     It is well known that enormous amounts of rock was broken a kilometer or more underground. This broken rock would have to be hauled to surface from thousands of feet underground, merely to produce minute fractions of an ounce in gold per skip load of ore. Mziwandile often marveled with his comrades about the rationality of this. Where does the money come from? Looking at the huge rock and slimes dumps, figuring that huge heaps of gold was somehow hidden from sight. The labour was painfully real, but where was its product? Today Mziwandile has this to say: “all this work merely to rebury our gold in Fort Knox in America!”. This anomaly was only possible because of the cheap labour which black, migrant workers provided. “Just think”, he suggests, “if this huge labour effort was expended in development of our own areas in the rural areas? What a difference it would have made!”  Given these observations it is clear that the alienation of labour from its product was alienation of the first order. Yawa could not see how  the mines led to the growth of Africa's greatest metropolitan complex, the fruits of migrant worker labour, but were left bereft of any idea to what extent the migrants were being exploited to the benefit of many thousands of mine owners, officials and owners of shares in the mines

     Indeed what was stolen from black workers in monthly wages equal to white white people paid to their children to go buy an ice cream, ended up building the wealth of South Africa in general, and white people in particular. Mziwandile comments: “there is no rational reason for this. The level of skill for doing many general mining jobs reserved for whites, could be done as well, if not better, by black workers. So why were we robbed of the fruits of our own labour!?”

     As a Team Leader working on Elsburg Gold Mine, as late as 1975, Mziwandile was earning 60c per shift! His white peers were earning twenty times that amount!

     There are two explanations for this wide wage discrepancy. The first is that black migrant workers generally were peasants and, who like Mziwandile, and in the view of mine owners had access to land, even though limited through colonial expropriation, they could plough, had livestock and could subsist as agriculturists. The mine bosses, working hand-in-glove with the previous colonial government of the British, calculated that black migrants could be “smoked out” of the rural areas for short stints of employment by forcing them to pay “hut taxes” on each ubuhlanti (clan homestead). The additional income that came in from the mines was a mere top up, it enabled young peasants to get started by accessing cattle and starting their own ubuhlanti. Men like Mziwandile became role models and pillars in the community, heading a ubuhlanti and living ubuntu, and supposedly a lifestyle of equality. He managed as a peasant subsisting on agriculture, but barely so. The rural areas where over populated, soil erosion pervasive and often there were droughts when nothing grew and cattle died. But the best part of his life, when he meant so much to his community, was robbed by this evil migrant labour system that only profited the rich. His life was his people and his people’s welfare were his well being. With seven children, his first son was born in 1970, for most of his life he was absent, away from home where he was needed most and meant to be - in Newlands, where crops could be grown, and cattle and sheep kept on pastures, and children parented.

     And yet, with little education and training the Mining Corporations could extract the same level of general skills from the migrant workers as they previously did with white workers. During his life on the mines Mziwandile did jobs like Winch Driver and Team Leader on successive mines. He and other black workers were as, if not better skilled at doing these highly productive jobs than the best of white miners. 

     And it was not asif the mine bosses had any illusions that they were not dealing with talented people rather than “savages” spoken of by Smuts and Churchill.  When black migrant workers enlisted and went through induction training, there was an elaborate system of skills selection. Selecting those with leadership skills was done in the same way as the British Army used for selection of men for Officer training. Mziwandile made the grade and initially was trained as a Winch Driver. This demanded a sober mind, great physical endurance, and technical skill. Given the earnings discrepancy between white miners and local migrants one is immediately aware that as mining was the basis of South African economic development, so too it was built by black wage slavery and responsible for the enormous inequality in South African society which became embedded in its economy to this day! And mining was never like picking of cotton, but required high degrees of skills and a great sense of responsibility. Team Leaders, had to be men of stature who could be entrusted with the responsible for other peoples’ lives. .            

     Many people are under the impression that gold was discovered in the Johannesburg area in 1886. While true in that these were the richest and most viable finds until then, the fact is that gold was already being mined on small scale in the places like Barberton, Dominion Reefs, and other mines in the Klerksdorp area.

     So long before gold was discovered in Johannesburg in 1886, another find was made decades earlier was just outside Klerksdorp, on a property adjoining that of Stilfontein today. An old picture of this discovery shows a wooden makeshift shaft with white miners celebrating because gold was found. However, in the long run there was a snag. At that time there were no migrant workers willing to sell themselves into wage slavery. The white workers you see in the picture clamouring up the mineshaft were mostly imported from the Corniosh tin mines, in England. They were proletarians who knew the value of industrial organization and they were certainly not prepared to work for a few sixpences and a ticky per day. And especially not in skilled jobs later done by black workers, but because of Apartheid laws, which outlawed any form of labour organization, veteran miners like Mziwandile were later forced to work basically for nothing.

     The difference between the early gold mine close to the Klerksdorp discovery decades earlier but abandoned not many years later, and Daggafontein Gold Mine discovered is instructive. The migrant labour system made the difference between viability and non-viability of mines. Employing white workers for general mining skills, such as Machine Drillers, Winch Drivers and Team Leaders were certainly no jobs for sissies. It took much experience on the job before workers could become proficient at what they were doing. Reason? White miners made themselves indispensable, as they were able to organize in Trade Unions to dictate wages to the mine bosses. As the white miners "graduated" into supervisory jobs over these high skill jobs, so the black migrant workers were reduced to slave labours working for no more than one twentieth part of wages than these whites.

     The Mine bosses therefore did everything possible to prevent any opportunity for migrant workers to organize Trade Unions. They were kept strictly regimented both underground and in the compounds (nowadays called “hostels”). The workers seen in the Daggafontein picture coming up from underground by multilevel “cages” (lift shafts) are tired, agitated and hungry and had only one thing in mind: get through the crush where their headlamps could be handed in, and make a rush for the mess hall where those who made it to there earlier got extra helpings of food.

     The mines in the area, including Westonaria, Venterspost, Libanon, Elsburg, and the newer mines like Western Deep Levels, had huge problems to cope with before they could become profitable. Western Area Gold Mine and Elsburg started working together in sinking a joint shaft and shared many facilities such as housing for its black workers in Carletonville.

     It is symptomatic when one reads the histories of these mines its almost asif black workers did not exist. And yet, the almost superhuman conditions that had to be overcome, such as extreme heat, very dangerous rock at deep levels, striking huge aquifers deep underground, were right in the face of black workers while white miners were sipping coffee in their safe dugouts and gossiping among themselves. The profit motive of the mine bosses ignored human endurance in order to get these mines up and running at very huge profits.

     Aerial photograph on the mines on the West Rand area show beautiful sunsets, "magnificent" white tailings dumps and refining plants. All shambolic! But then, the sun has set over the mining industry in South Africa leaving broken communities and environmental degradation in its wake. Such lovely pictures to entice overseas investors to draw their profits from the richest mines in the world a good indication of how mining has in fact distinguished the future of South Africa, its people and its environment! 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Should the Marshals Peace Corps be resurrected?

Marshals deployed by the Buffalo City Municipality for 
beach patrols, December 2010

When communities are under security threat autonomous means of self protection arise for self-protection. We see this happening, for example, in the waves of protest movements sweeping through North Africa and the Arab lands in the Mid East. When protests are peaceful and spontaneous they are vulnerable from two specific dangers. First, there is the danger that if the state feels threatened by the unrest they will employ provocateurs in order to entice clashes and conflict, and thus strike pre-emptively before the protest snowballs out of control. And the second danger are opportunistic, mostly criminal elements in the community who will see their chances to loot homes and businesses and even directly attack community members in robberies, rapes and murder.

It requires a minimum of organization within the protesting movements to encourage and endorse spontaneous action in the community street patrols, organize self-protection and set up some form of coordinating mechanism between these. In fact most revolutionary movements find themselves overtaken in situations where communities come under stress and fear for their own safety, take preemptive action, but laster get overwhelmed by a restoration of the old order. This happened in the 1971 Paris Commune uprising where a spontaneous Safety Committee arose, or in the 1848 revolutions in Europe where Safety Committees were set up and became nodal points for the growth of political power to unseat old regimes. More often than not they failed when restorations occurred either soon or a few years on and old regimes re-established themselves.

This cycle is mostly of longer duration and not visible from one year to the next. In the case of unrest in the townships which boiled over in the mid eighties causing the Apartheid Regime to send soldiers of the South African Defence Force into townships, the process of establishment of street and area committees was almost immediate, if not already existing. This heavy handed action merely led to intensification of self protection mechanisms in the populations. An important point here is that these more or less spontaneous street and area committees prefigured political movements such as the United Democratic Front, rather than the other way round. The township residents were concerned about bread and butter issues as well as social issues such as schooling, safety and security, and “service delivery” of water, electricity and sewerage systems. The UDF, and later the ANC imposed political agendas which today have backfired as precisely the same issues which caused the unrest in the seventies and reaching a peak in the mid nineteen eighties are back on the radar. All that happened is the old story of first a political dispensation which was branded “revolutionary”, and then restoration of vested interests leading to the same economic and social maladies boiling up in revolt all over again. Many have made the point that the intensity of unrest of recent years the “revolutionary” A N C government has to deal with, are the same as was the case with the “old regime” under Apartheid.

So at grassroots level not much has changed, besides what can be called “macro-cosmetic” measures to rid the country of overt race laws. After a respite of a number of years many townships were improved, but a steady influx from the rural to the urban areas resulted in squatter settlements and led to unrest of equal intensity of the mid eighties. While “service delivery”, or the absence of it, lies at the heart  growing unrest, one stands out central – the lack of protection services of the state. Violence that was masked as "political" in the pre-transition years has continued unabated and is the major predicament facing all of South African society, and especially in the poor communities. Crime has reached record levels when measured by international standards.

After the first democratic elections of 1994 there was a natural tendency for communities to revert to self protection mechanisms. In the townships vigilante groups bubbled from the streets while in the urban, still mainly white areas, neighborhood watches backed by experienced members of Commando Units of the old South African Defence Force were reactivated by residents. 

An overarching development was the stipulation in the National Peace Corps (1991) that inequalities in the South African society be ameliorated as a means to reduce violence and crime.  Marshal units were trained in community policing by observer missions and donor organizations before 1994, and played a very useful role in their traditional area of expertise, namely ensuring safety and security in their own communities. In this the marshal units of the Border Region excelled in preventing and quelling rioting following the fall of the Ciskei Bantustan government. They also excelled in turning back a mass march of 100,000 people when the advance was ambushed by soldiers of the Ciskei Defence Force. Ironically this ambush was provoked by Ronnie Kasrils, a leading member of the South African Communist Party and later Deputy Minister of Defence, ostensibly to steal a march on the ANC in demonstrating suzerainty in the national liberation movement. Almost one hundred marchers were killed and hundreds more seriously injured. Were it not for a well trained marshals brigade the damages inflicted by the Ciskei soldiers would have been much more severe.

With these background and overarching developments, the negotiations between the old Regime and the ANC put policing on the top of the list of priorities. Already the interim Constitution promulgated the establishment of Community Policing Forums to “monitor” the activities of each and every South African Police Station. In fact the philosophy of policing was changed moving the "force" towards a "service", thus the name change from “SAP” (South African Police) to “SAPS” (South African Police Service)  In many areas the old marshal structures filled the new space as Community Policing Forums, in some instances vigilante organizations became predominant. Community Policing as official government policy came off to a very shaky start.

This new approach to policing was hoped the have an immediate and significant impact on reducing crime. In the initial years, however, even though there was a falling off because of the ending of “black-on-black” violence, crime continued to spiral out of control. Soon flaws showed up in the policy and guidelines for setting up of Community Policing Forms as these became soccer balls between contending political factions, were infiltrated by sectional interests such as illegal liquor outlets and dens of prostitution.  Official frustration in quelling crime led to ever more desperate measures such as a “shoot to kill” policy in dealing with armed robbers, and a name change to "South African Police Force”, from “South African Police Service”. There was also an imposition of direct police control over Community Policing Forums by smothering them with a new level of police organization called Sector Policing.

The question now is, is a community volunteer system such as existed with the Marshals Peace Corps still relevant? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because the system of a properly community anchored structure to ensure community safety has been proven to be highly effective. But no because such a structure can only function when it gets direction directly from its own community, and is free from a top-down control by official authorities, including principally the police.     

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The seasick sailor

De Ruyter Division, Saldanha Naval Gymnasium 1959

Naval Gymnasium, 1959

Getting through high school was a painful and miserable time of my life. The home fracas when I “expelled” my father and took steps to relocate the family in 1956 without him ended in failure as my mother acceded to the old man’s tearful pleas to be taken back again. This reunion was in Merriespruit and soon followed by another family catastrophe with the suicide of my brother Odiel who was a few months older than 18. So my last two years at school were clothed in sombreness and withdrawal.

I had no real plans what to do after completing my high school other than getting away from home as fast and as far as I could. There was a standing offer made by my grandmother that I come over to Amsterdam to be put through a University of my choice. This option was in the back of my mind but given the family situation I felt that the better option was simply to jump the cuckoo’s nest and be rid of the turmoil and travails of all family connection. The next best option as holding action was to volunteer for military service at the Naval Gymnasium in Saldanha Bay for a year. The advantage of this was that that volunteering for a one year Gymnasium training for either midshipman or cadet officer exempted one from regualr military call up. The selection process in those days was rigorous and passing the grade in itself an achievement. The reason why I choose the Naval Gymnasium close to Cape Town was that it was as far as I could get from home. 

Pulling into Cape Town station by train was a memorable experience. It was the first time I was in proximity to an open ocean and seeing a huge ship was almost of the miraculous order of buildings floating the water. As I alighted I found officers dressed in white shirts and shorts with white caps signalling us together like a new intake freshly taken from the stock fairs for herding to our new places. We were taken by trucks to Saldanha Bay where the outfitting in uniforms took place during the very first day. The Gymnasium officers seemed to have planned in advance our quartering in divisions with great care. The inland guys were spread out in dormitories made up of at least one half from the coastal areas. I was assigned to Tromp Division and allotted to a dormitory of candidates from the then South West Africa.

A rather vigorous racial indoctrination session was shortly to follow for the inland candidates. We were warned that the area around Saldanha Bay was inhabited mainly by coloureds. (Yes, this term referring to people of mixed race is still not struck out of the popular New South African dictionary). We were told that we were vulnerable as we would find the coloured women attractive thinking they are white. The way to go, we were told, was to observe the women’s finger nails which invariably were different from ours. Also, looking at the tongue and the mouth showed a difference, what exactly I can no longer remember. This was certainly reminiscent of cattle auctions I had come to experience in the old Transvaal. 

The South West candidates were an odd mob. They all seemed to know one another although they came from widely dispersed places from what is today Namibia. Probably this had to do with most of them being placed in school hostels given the thinly spread white population. The territory was then of course still governed by South Africa under the old UN mandate system. One guy came with the nickname “Bos Aap” (Bush Ape!) and was barely tolerated by the rest of his compatriots. He was short and stocky and had a compulsive habit of screaming like a wild Tarzan out of the blue. When this happened while all in the dormitory were asleep on a Sunday afternoon boots would fly in his direction and sometimes he had his testicles scrubbed with black polish.

The stories that came from these South West guys were from another world, maybe a century ago, but sure as dammit a reflection of the racial situation was in South West Africa anno 1959. They spoke about “taming the Vamboes” (referring to the Owambo, mainly involved in agriculture and cattle farming, make up more 50 per cent of the Namibia's population) capturing them and chaining them to trees until they submitted and were “tame” as domestics or farm workers.

On the other hand the Naval Gymnasium also exposed the milder side of the South African personality as many, if not most of the officers were from British Royal Navy vintage. They were above all seamen – world wise and tolerant. We could detect frictions in the ranks between the few Afrikaans officers who had obviously been hand picked to ensure that proper attitudes were developed and maintained regarding the great white homeland. 

I seemed to have drawn the ire of one of these, a Lieutenant Carstens (whom we nicknamed “Karrekas” because of his small and buckled body frame) who one day did the rounds of inspection of our dormitory with the Commander of the Gymnasium. While we were all standing to attention he rifled through my locker and found a pinup from a Time Magazine showing a beautiful Japanese woman. I was picked on by Carstens who lifted the pinup from the drawer as if it was something most nasty, something to snarl about and pulled a face as if it were a stinking baby nappy.  Carstens then turned to my fellow and bunk neighbour, whose name I can remember but do not wish to mention in case he ever gets to read this, and told him to speak to me about this  “deviation” of mine. After the inspection was over this fellow indeed did start clobbering me with accusations of “sis, man, can you not see what you are doing? Look at the shape of her face!” 

That really did catch me on the back foot. Not because I felt in any way moved not to find women of colour attractive, but guilty for being caught out on this. It reminded me of my last days at primary school when Odiel and I were into building model airplanes. There was a hobby shop owned by an Indian family, and mostly with an Indian woman behind the counter. I fell in love with her, even though she was so far removed across the race barrier. I was over the mountains, would pick the legendary flower on the Alps for her, I dreamed about her. I think this was being reinforced as a complex in me as later down the line I found the security police pouncing on me because, they mooted, I was not really interested in helping people suffering injustice, but I merely wanted to bed ladies of colour.    

On another occasion there was cold comfort on this race sexism issue. During the tea breaks a young coloured woman came into the Gymnasium grounds to sell bakeries, the favourite being dough nuts. As the drilling and grilling on the parade ground was done with, we were dismissed and the mob made a rush around the bakery cart and invariably swamped the young lady doing the sales. This became abusive. As the mob swarmed around her others would go in on hands and knees through the throng and start pulling at her panties and fiddling with her. This was most humiliating, but not one of the candidates, myself included, felt inclined or had the guts to report this sexual deviancy to the officers. Probably because the moral was clear – you can abuse people of colour, but not befriend them. 

Finally, there was another memorable run in with this Karrekas. On this occasion he came in for inspection with the base Commander again, once more went for my lockers, and hauled out a copy of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History'. I had found the book in the library on the base, where I tended to spend most of my free time. This became a matter of derision and my fellow candidate, my next bunk spy, was again asked to see me right for reading “communist” nonsense. My protestation that I got the book in the library backfired. The book was taken from me and never replaced on the library shelves. We did get to talk after the inspection was over. My bunk neighbour felt the need to invoke some religious talk and the dangers of atheism. These talks were ongoing and therefore no surprise. I was arguing against God in those days. The guy was considered the most intelligent in the dormitory which evidently he was. He came through his high school with straight A’s, for all subjects. While journeying with him by train he would demonstrate his due diligence and memorise every single station by name and jot down some thoughts along the way.  

I never experienced my being Catholic problematic until my first years at an Afrikaans school in Odendaalsrus. Catholics and Jews were asked to stand aside during any religious service or what was called Religious Instruction. This amplified also the fight between that ubiquitous Dominee De Kock who had ongoing battles with both the Catholic Friars in Winburg and the Anglo American Corporation in getting churches and schools established on the Free State gold fields. At the Naval Gymnasium this discrimination was ratcheted up. We had to get off the parade ground every morning while the Chaplain said prayers opening a new day. The benefit was that on Sundays all except Catholics and Jews were under compulsion to attend church services so we were given other duties such as driving the confessionals in good standing to their respective churches. But the vast majority went to the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk, the de-facto State Church. 

This played out in an interesting scenario during the last quarter at the Gymnasium when I was elected to do specialist radar training at the SAS Bluff, a land base of the Navy in Durban. The Commander of SAS Bluff was a Roman Catholic and as the only Catholic on that specific training course I was asked to accompany him to his own church, which was the Marianhill community. It was here that I had the first refreshing experience of a non-racial community, albeit restricted to within the Catholic Church. This had a definite deflection on the racial consciousness indoctrinated in me, as with all children at state school and institutions, and later spun me off the rails of the race tracks altogether.

Sibling love and rivalry

Odiel, Trusy and Berend pioneering in bath tub, Freddies Mine Camp 

Sibling loves and rivalries

This picture of the four siblings was taken in the backyard of the Freddies mine camp in 1947. The year 1947 is a memorable year for a number of reasons. First, it was prior to my mother taking ill and being hospitalized in Johannesburg, with the four of us being boarded for a year at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, in Klerksdorp. The second reason is that it was a year before the elections of 1948 which would significantly change South Africa as well as the way in which our lives developed. And the third most important reason is that it became a year ofg trauma for sister Trusy. So 1947 gives a good time-fix as it were, for a few very crowded and tumultuous events that influenced all of us in the growing contradictions, suppressed under the mantle of "development", in the class and race relations on the boil in South Africa. Leaving the silent alienation aside for now as to how our blindness to the existence of many thousands of people locked up in concentration camps, the true providers of our material welfare, let me deal with the trials and tribulations mainly of my sister Trusy who became victim of the circumstances of the family as influenced by contradictions of the pioneer days of the Free State goldfields. The iniquities of the Apartheid social system was not invisible, but hardly counter-actionable as children growing up and having our minds warped by it.  

Odiel was born on the 18th of February, 1939; I was born on the 24th of July, 1940. That is as close in age as two siblings can get, besides being born as twins which we were not. Trusy was born shortly after I was and with a similar closeness between dates of births. In the photograph she appears to be firmer and bigger in body build than myself. But this is deceptive. I was maybe, well, let me say, the runt of the litter and smaller for my age than either Odiel or Trusy. But I stood taller than she did all the same. But next to Odiel I was definitely a second best. He had a most beautiful body build and posture. His eyes were windows of innocence while I was always considered to be the naughtier of two, in fact the maverick of the sibling stable. That is until the last addition to the siblings, Etsko born in 1959 who proved to be a competing maverick. Thea, also a late addition born 1950, proved to be a saint in the order of Odiel.

Odiel and I were very close but as the years progressed, especially during and after our Convent years our paths seemed to diverge with distinct differences in our seeking out peer friendships and interests. I was also very close to Trusy and as a sister she adored her older brothers. Odiel and I were joined together as at the hip in our infant years and deserves a chapter in its own right. Trusy and Jerry were lagging behind us as infants and only gradually crossed the borders of the alliance that was constructed by the two older siblings. Jerry, the youngest of the brood had a more difficult time in breaking this barrier. Odiel and I had to “keep the cry baby at home” for what exact reason I do not recall. As often we got into mischief that my mother should not hear about he was like an unwelcome nosy shrew better to shoo off from our regular, daily adventures. Sometimes my mother would bribe us with treats to have Jerry tag along. If such petitions succeeded, Jerry would be sworn to secrecy and not to spill the beans with my mother. Not that anything extraordinary was on the agenda of adventure other than some of the regular items being highly dangerous. Such as climbing to the top and sliding down the inclines of the mine’s rock dump. 

Presto, our pet Alsatian dog from Benoni days was still with us in Freddies, but not for long. The split-pole fence seen in the photograph was constructed shortly before the photograph was taken. It made the fun of dishing it out to one another from a tub, or chasing one another with a squirting hose pipe unseen to the neighbours or passersby. These split-pole boundaries between cottages in the mining camp were erected to the great satisfaction of residents. Not only did it allow for privacy preventing neighbours snooping on one another, kids doing even worse and becoming the gossip hoppers of the camp, but it also allowed for pets and animals to be kept safe and sound within the terrains of the cottages. 

We had the Oosthuizens as neighbours. My mother and Mrs. Oosthuizen had become firm friends both feeding one another’s frustrations about their men folk and the poor conditions of living in the camp. While my mother could not complain of physical violence in the home, her lot being more of the psychological kind, Mrs. Oosthuizen was a battered woman regularly demonstrated by cuts and bruises to her face.  This sight of battered women was fairly common in the camp. The Oosthuizens were a family with two sons. The younger, named Sarel, was at boarding school in Bloemfontein; the elder, Johan, at Stellenbosch University. Mr. Oosthuizen was the mine electrician. They had a pet Fox Terrier which became a regular member of a hunting pack with Presto included. 

One morning, after Odiel and I had accompanied Oom Ferreira from his farm doing deliveries of milk from a horse-drawn cart in the camp, we had to inform her of the terrible news from this selfsame Oom Ferreira. He had spoken to us about a Fox Terrier dog he had shot dead during the night. As Mrs. Oosthuizen’s Fox Terrier was missing we had to convey to her our suspicion that her dog had been killing Oom Ferreira’s sheep at night and was to be found shot dead in the open veldt. She was terribly distraught. A few weeks thereafter Presto showed signs of poisoning and was coughing up blood. The only recourse possible for advice and assistance was to call on my mother’s confidant, Father Piet van Velde. Father Piet was the itinerant Catholic Priest who visited the mine camp twice a month. He diagnosed that Presto had been fed broken glass and would have to be put down. That is where our dear Presto ceased to be the constant companion of the siblings from times of their birth. He was taken by car with Father ten Velde to be put down by the Dominican Friars in Winburg.

After Presto’s death the trauma compounded a bleak period and depressive happenings. Mr. Oosthuizen became more violent than ever and forbade either Odiel of I to have any further friendhsip with Oom Ferreira. My father socialized more often with his underground colleagues and sometimes came home in an inebriated state which infuriated my mother. Odiel and I would readily do my mother’s biddings to impose on him during his inebriating sessions and call him home from whichever cottage where the partying was taking place. But we as often ended staying at theparty being entertained ourselves by the manly stories being bandied about with the flow of alcohol. Above all the telling of stories of gory happenings down in the mine shaft of mine brought a sense of reality to our environment as so much was going on unseen in the mine and unspoken of at home. This would be fun for us, even though we also were in for the scolding by my mother when we eventually returned home. My mother then resorted to sending me off alone while Odiel was kept at home. This sort of situation readily replicated itself and gradually I became my mother’s knight in shining armour, called to her side and listen to her lengthy outpourings of what a terrible deal life had given her. She considered herself a sophisticated European city women ensnared first for years on the farm in Rynfield, and now in the middle of a veritable Wild West. This placed both Odiel and I in the firing line in the screaming and going on between my parents. My relationship with my father went from bad to worse. Sometimes he took to punishing me for no reason at all.

But the real victim of the sibling love and rivalry drama placed Trusy in a very unenviable situation. It was clear that there was not too much love lost between my father and my mother. While my mother, far less able to socially interact in the new Mecca, the new miners’ paradise which so animated my father, she had to take recourse to her older children, mainly myself, to keep her abreast and informed about the world out there outside of the family home. My father started taking a primary interest in Trusy which soon became the cause for further division in the family. I could never fully understand, nor did I have the maturity to do so, what the actual issue was. That my father showed great interest in her to climax what might have been a highly frustrating shift at work purely for her company is the lighter side of the relationship. Indeed no great difference to what my mother was abusing me for – a conversation point in a family starved of communication between the parents, and the parents to the children. There was no a welcoming ear with my mother for my father and she made no bones of it that she detested him and was only waiting for the children to grow up and leave him. Which, in later years she did.

A catastrophe intervened which amplified the emerging family pathology. The Oosthuizen’s sons, Johan and Sarel, had come home from their respective boarding schools. Johan, being already over 18 years old, took a part time job at the mineshaft as onsetter (lifts man) to give signals for the raising and lowering of the multi-purpose kibble. He peered down at the shaft while the safety doors were open and rang the bell for lowering of the kibble. At that very moment a pipe dislodged itself from the kibble and hit Johan hurtling him down the shaft. He was instantly killed. This was a terrible thing to have happened for both the Oosthuizen and the Schuitema families as my father felt himself partly responsible for Johan’s job at the mineshaft. The Oosthuizens blamed my father. But the issue was also much more complex. Sarel and Trusy became sweet on one another. This riled my father. But the age difference was a mere three years so both my mother and Mrs. Oosthuizen smiled their approval. The children were playing after all. In later life I came to understand that this relationship was very real for Trusy and its bust up caused her severe trauma.

One night my father came off shift and was in the room where Trusy and Jerry were sleeping. My mother was awake and confronted him. She went ballistic and had literally hit the deck fitting. I ran to Mrs. Oosthuizen next door informing her that my mother was in desperate need of a doctor, “she is dying!” My mother was made comfortable and Father Piet ten Velde was called and arrived from Winburg a few hours later. Events tumbled from that night on, my mother was flown by light aircraft to Johannesburg and through good offices of the Friars in Winburg the four of us, Odiel, I, Trusy and Jerry ended boarded at Klerksdorp Convent. While our stay at the Convent could not have been longer than a year, my perception of life there, with its beautiful gardens and compassionate care givers, seemed of much greater duration than it actually was. Trusy and Jerry were housed in the girls section, and Odiel and I in the boys’ boarders section. It was at the Convent that Odiel and I seemed to square off as part of rival friendships. I had a boon friend Charlie Cooks, a day scholar at the Convent, same age as myself but very athletic and larger than myself. Odiel had his boon friend in Leonard Brophy, also a day scholar, who led a little gang of “Pirates” in Klerksdorp. 

While later our sibling rivalry resolved and we became the adventurous mates again, there were some nasty incidents, or at least one nasty incident that showed the extent of the rift. The two rival groups became involved in what we called a “clod fight” on the slimes dumps of the gold mine abandoned since the early 1900. Clods are of course solid cakes of slime, soft enough not to inflict serious damage. But for one or other reason Odiel and I came face to face in a horrific confrontation. As we were trying to clobber the other into submission, I let fly with a hard rock and hit him square in the forehead. He was hospitalized for a week. At his hospital bed I profusely apologised and we agreed that my mother should never get to hear what actually happened.  Then one day I arrived home to run into an unexpected clobbering meted out by my mother. She beat me with an empty tomato box saw splinters fly. Odiel had told her of the incident, by then months belated. He told me: “sorry, Berend, I did it for your own good. I did not want you running around with a guilty conscience”. Odiel showed himself the saint more often, before and since this incident.

The endgame at Freddies was the saddest news for Trusy. According to Father ten Velde it would be for her own best interest to be permanently boarded at Klerksdorp Convent. This did restore a measure of peace in family relations but none of us, mother and siblings alike had any doubt of who the victim was of the turbulence which spooked the Freddies household. While at the convent in Klerksdorp she became rebellious and was moved by the Dominican sisters to the Good Shepherd home for girls in Johannesburg. She became alienated from us. I cannot say that any of us, neither Odiel, I or Jerry missed her. But her alienation and our acquiescence in her fate was also our own alienation which expressed later in the life and times of the siblings as parted members of a nuclear family.  It left a numbed sorrowful hollowness I in any case found difficult to work with. Giving thought to a development a few years on, when I was in a major conflict with my father, I have often wondered how Freudian theory could pronounce a verdict on this form of social pathology. Did I have a self-destructive Oedipus complex? Where there is smoke there is fire: my understanding today is more complex. Oedipus had sisters who in fact were his daughters. That places Trusy’s tragedy as the real victim more accurately. Were all four of us, and especially Trusy, victims of a dysfunctional family? If so, yes – but is was so under the circumstances that only the Free State goldfields in the pioneering days could create. A dysfunctional family in the social barbarity of the early Freddies mine camp, including the pathology of denial of the broken families and social survival kits going on behind the compound walls of the mass of black mine workers, renders the verdict: dysfunction all round that eventually saw the dissolution of the Apartheid social system. What has been sown however is also reaped. Today South Africa is one of the most crime driven violent societies in the world. The lighter side of the personal experience of dysfunction in a dysfunctional social system was that at least I could understand and counteract these in my later years.         


Coalbrook mine disaster, 1960

Coalbrook mine disaster, 1960

Mechanical Coal Cutter set on concrete block adjacent to the commemoration plate


In early 1960 my father was recruited by the owners of Coalbrook coal mine, close to Vereeniging, to head up an emergency team of shaft sinkers to sink a shaft to open the way to rescue 439 miners who had been trapped some 300 meters underground. A borehole had already been sunk immediately above where the miners were thought to be trapped, so the mine engineers suggested that a 3 meter shaft be sunk closer to the Vaal River, to deal with the water problem that was discovered by the borehole operation.
He had barely started on his last shaft sinking assignment when the true ramifications of the catastrophe, the biggest in South African mining history, became clear and a living nightmare that disturbed him for years to come. This disaster played itself out over a number of days, with the ensuing rescue effort running into weeks.
The catastrophe unfolded on the morning shift in late December 1959, a number of black miners had bad omens from rumblings coming from rock formations overhanging the underground working in a section of the mine that was not being mined. When the underground rat population started fleeing for any opening to fresh air to the surface the miners fled likewise, all headed for shafts or shaft stations for hoisting to the surface. In fact a portion of the mine's hanging wall did collapse, but no workers were injured by that. Instead, the sheer force of wind caused by the collapse had many blown over and injured. Normally men (white and black) went underground day by day blissfully repressing any thought of accidents and not returning to see the daylight again. But when seismic events took place all became aware of imminent disaster facing them around the next corner. All too vividly men become aware that they are living by grace of hundreds of meters of rock roofing above, in the case of Coalbrook, or thousands of meters of rock hanging over them in the deeper gold mines.  

The immediate reaction of the "front line" management, to the miners being spooked by the ominous rumblings of rock formations hanging over them, was to block and stop them running away for exits. White Shift Bosses instructed Boss Boys to stand in the way of the fleeing miners and chase them back to the workings. Messages of a strike in progress underground among the white and black workers were conveyed to the mine managers sitting comfortably in their surface offices. They sent down teams of white supervisors who threatened the workers with criminal charges for breaking their contracts or instant dismissal. Alternatively, if they did not return to their work places, the police would be called. And so the panic was halted and all went back to work. A few days passed by without incident. Then the catastrophe crept like a silent monster on the nearly 1,000 unsuspecting miners as entire sections of the mine bore the brunt of collapsed overhang rock. This blocked any hope of escape for 439 miners, the vast majority black but a good number of white miners as well. Trapped in the belly of the earth, at coal faces and in travelling ways, they remain buried to this very day. After more than a week of anguished operations to sink makeshift shafts and boreholes to ascertain where to focus rescue efforts and conditions in the collapsed underground workings, all further rescue efforts were given up.  The fatality was 439 black, five white miners, and 40 mules. It appears all fled to the safety of an insular-shaped redoubt in the south end of the mine’s section 10 underground workings. 

After this traumatic experience my father then returned to the mature mines with a series of jobs all in the Klerksdorp area: Stilfontein, Vaal Reefs, and lastly Hartebeesfontein, before final retirement in 1975. But the experience at Coalbrook haunted him for time to come and was added to the top of his list of narratives told ad infinitum to his sons, grandchildren and whoever would listen.  

How and why the Disaster enveloped

(Excerpted from SAIMM Journal

At about 19:00 on 28 December 1959, the Northern part of section 10, including the area where the experiment had been done, collapsed. The accompanying wind blast injured one person some distance away. There were no other casualties, as the top coaling, which was still being done by Section 10, was done on day shift only. It covered an area of approximately 6 ha and had been arrested towards the south by one of the 12.2 m wide barriers. Top coaling was in progress approximately 300 m south of where the collapse occurred. No roof noises, scaling or any other indication of instability was observed during the day shift.

For the next three days, roof noises and pillar scaling were observed around the perimeter of the fall, but then it died down. Top coaling and other mining operations continued. Two weeks later an Inspector of Mines made a routine visit to the mine and carried out an underground inspection at sections in the vicinity. The collapse was not reported to the inspector, and there is no record of anything abnormal being observed during the inspection. On 21 January, 24 days after the first collapse, the major event took place. At about 16:00, the miner in charge of a section, which was then working just west of Section 10, was alarmed by loud shot-like noises coming from the direction of Section 10 and pillar spalling. He withdrew his gang to a safe place and on the way out they were overtaken by a wind blast. He reported the incident to the shift boss, who proceeded in-bye to investigate.

At 16:20, the miner in charge of a gang working just south of Section 10 also became aware of problems in Section 10 by a strong wind blast from that direction and sounds like heavy thunder. He also withdrew his gang. The mine overseer and acting manager (the mine manager was on annual leave at the time) proceeded underground to investigate. They found that some of the ventilation stoppings around No. 10 Section had been blown out and methane was emanating. No carbon monoxide was detected, ruling out the possibility of an explosion. Cracking noises were still coming from No. 10 Section, but from nowhere else. Word was received from surface that a depression with wide cracks had formed over Section 10. The mine overseer and acting manager concluded that as surface had subsided, the ‘weight had come off’, and as the problems were confined to Section 10, the remaining areas were safe. They nonetheless withdrew the two sections in the immediate vicinity of Section 10 and made arrangements for the damaged ventilation stoppings to be replaced. The sections to the east apparently continued working normally, as the haulages continued to operate and no word of problems had been received from those sections. Some time after 19:00, the men replacing the ventilation stoppings south of Section 10 became aware of increasing thunder-like noises from Section 10 and increasing methane emissions. They withdrew but before they could reach a safe place, were ‘overtaken by a hurricane of dust laden air accompanied by crashing like thunder’. The gale swept through the mine for ten minutes with great force and then at diminished force for a further 45 minutes. Men were blown over, and a general exodus from the mine ensued. It was not realized until much later that not a single one of the 438 persons from the four sections working in the east had come out of the mine. The general manager and mine overseer proceeded underground to investigate. All the entries to the east had collapsed completely. They found one person from Section 4 who had been working in the haulage and brought him to safety. He was the only survivor from the east. The rescue operation was covered extensively in daily newspapers and on the radio. Attempts were made to drill rescue holes from the surface, but the strong dolerite sill hampered the operations. After some weeks, the rescue attempts were abandoned. All the boreholes indicated a general scene of collapse, several flooded with water and high concentrations of methane gas. The bodies of the 437 men who died in the collapse were never recovered. Seismic and surface observations The following seismic events were recorded that can be connected to the collapses:

 December at 19:16, Richter magnitude 0.5 

January at 16:45, Richter magnitude 0.3 

January at 19:26, Richter magnitude 1.0. Due to the very wide spacings of seismographs it was not possible to locate these events accurately, but they were roughly located in the general area of the mine. 

The events on 28 December and at 16:45 on 21 January exhibited single amplitude peaks while the one at 19:26 on 21 January lasted for 5 minutes, with three distinguishable amplitude peaks during that period. Comparison of the times at which the seismic events were recorded to the times at which wind blasts and other observations indicating collapse underground were made, leads to the conclusion that the seismic events were caused by the collapse and were not minor earthquakes leading to the collapse. No surface cracks were observed on an inspection by the general manager on 29 December, although a cattle herder did report cracks to the local farmer on 9 January. On 21 January, the first surface cracks were observed on the road traversing the mine at 16:20. By 18:30, the cracks had progressed some 1200 m to the south-east. Above the area of the experiment, a circular depression of about 1.8 to 2.1 m deep and diameter of 150 m had formed, bounded by cracks approximately 0.5 m wide. The total area of collapse as indicated by the extent of surface cracks, was approximately 324 ha. Over most of the area, the amount of subsidence was approximately 0.6 m, but more in areas where top coaling had been done. The general conclusion to be reached was that the collapse on 28 December occurred above the experimental area and on 21 January it spread outwards from that area, only stopping where it reached solid ground or pillars that were wider than 12.2 m. The notable exception was in the north-west, where an area that was both mined on the 12.2 m wide pillars and top coaled, bordering on the collapsed area, did not collapse—there the mined span was restricted to approximately 275 to 300 m.

Cover over the borehole drilled immediately above the trapped miners. The drill bit broke 
and this attempt abandoned


Looking at the concrete which seals the ill-fated Coalbrook North Shaft.
From left to right: Lenning Makiwane  (Zamdela coordinator of Khulumani),
ommy McClean, and Gregotry MaClean.

Commemoration Plate (Date when erected not stated) 

A 10x10 meter room for which provided 20 bunks. Most rooms have an eerie feel to them as articles belonging to the victims of the disaster 53 can still be found in the rooms.

Derelict houses located close to the ill-fated Coalbrook North Shaft. 
The accommodation was for white miners

What used to be the mine-owned trading store was turned into a bottle store some years after the catastrophe of 1960. However Zamdela residents complained that its situation being co close to the catastrophe and empty residences of the victims was a cultural abomination 
and subsequently closed down.  



See the following: 

1 SAIMM Update 2006:  A mine engineer speaks out. Asks what has changed in rock mechanics since Coalbrook disaster.

2 Newscast video clip: American newscast showing scenes at shaft head on the day of the disaster. (Cut / Paste into browser to view video footage).

3. Copy of Benjamin Pogrund Article, Daily Mail:

4. From New Age 1960:

My father was a gold miner

The Apartheid Generation in Gold

My father started his mining career in 1934. His first employment was at Van Rijn Deep Ltd Gold Mine, close to Benoni. The date is more than coincidental. On his service record he listed his last occupation as farmer. That was not exactly correct. He was employed from the ranks of many thousands destitute, unemployed people who lost jobs and farms during the Great Depression.

Worldwide gold mining has been associated with the opening of new frontiers. And nowhere else was this more the case than in South Africa. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand had ratcheted up a hive of activity giving birth to a sustainable first world economy, encapsulated a settler colonial environment. By the early 20th Century the mining of the gold reef in the Johannesburg area had gone into decline. While Johannesburg became a prosperous hub of activity, it is probable that had there been no further discoveries of outcrops of the gold bearing reef of the Witwatersrand rock formation, South Africa could have sunk back into oblivion. Discovering new outcrops of the gold bearing reef on the East Rand, notably around Benoni, mines like Van Rijn Deep and New Modderfontein Gold Mining Company and others once again replicated the earlier discoveries in the Johannesburg area giving rise to the richest mines in the world. My father followed this trend, his second employment being at New Modderfontein, and subsequently, after he returned from the war in Europe in 1946, his third employment station was on the West Rand, at Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mining Company, close to what later arose as the town of Carletonville.  Blyvooruitzicht, on the northwest line of the Rand, superseded all previous records of the Central and Eastern Rand, Johannesburg and Benoni respectively, in scale and profitability of earnings. Today all these places mentioned, are in Gauteng Province.

There was even more groundbreaking news in 1946 when a borehole had been sunk in a corn field near Odendaalsrus, in the northwest of the Orange Free State, today renamed as Free State Province. In an article written in 1946 Time Magazine described this strike of luck as precipitating the greatest gold rush in the world since that of the Klondike, in Canada. The Free State borehole, named "Aandenk" which has been immortalized by a monument, intersected ore which was 33 times more valuable than the previous most valuable found at Blyvooruitzicht. There was a global stock market frenzy following this discovery which led to the opening of the Free State goldfields.

Interestingly, investors on the major stock exchanges referred to South African gold stocks as “kaffir circuses”. If one follows the undercurrents in financial reporting from the financial press on the South African goldfields, especially during the 1940’s, it is evident that employment of black mine workers reflected a serious disorder in the civilizing mission of the British Empire in Africa. Every resort was made by mine owners to exploit racial differences with aggravated social consequences of black labour exploitation and indeed laughed off by expletives like “kaffir circuses”. We, as white kids grew up on the gold fields in a protected environment and oblivious to the mass of black workers made invisible and contained in the compounds. But commonsense left gaps all the same. I often used to marvel at the amount of work involved in heaping up mountains of rock and what sort of a cavity was left in the belly of the earth. Later in life these gaps in knowledge would fill up much as the cavities in the earth would seek retribution for the damages inflicted on underground aquifers and poisons spread from waste rock dumps and slimes dams.  

At this time my father, probably for good cause to feed a growing up family of six children, opted to drop mining as a profession and embark on a career of maximizing earnings as a contract miner. Management of the mines had a promotional structure from Surveyors, Samplers, Shift Bosses at the junior level, to Mine Captains, a gradation of rank until the top notch Mine Manager, and then on to even higher rankings as staff at head offices of the mining houses. There was a rigid distinction between mine officials, all white and mostly English speaking or from England, and white miners, mainly Afrikaans speaking. White miners were mostly salaried white people doing trades such as fitters and turners, electricians, or menial jobs such as laying tracks and pipes or as trammers, cleaning haulages and stopes of blasted rock. Or they were contract miners in charge of stoping operations, tunnel development or shaft sinking. On the other side of the racial divide were actual labourers, black miners who earned a pittance, nothing in comparison to the whites. They outnumbered white workers by probably 20 to 0ne.

When my father left Blyvooruitzicht he was a Shift Boss. When he started service at Freddies in the Free State, he came on board doing the most dangerous but also most lucrative job of Master Shaft Sinker. His earnings more than trebled. While he nominally earned much less than he did as a mine management functionary, as a contract miner his performance bonuses more than compensated. In shaft sinking this amounted to shortening a shift, with the sequence of cleaning, drilling, blasting, wait for the nitrous fumes to dissipate into the open atmosphere, and then do the whole cycle all over again. The shorter the cycle, the more shifts per day, and so the more pay. He was constantly on wait for the mine Ford light delivery truck, for call out to the mine once the nitrous fumes from blasting had entered the open atmosphere.

As children we knew the significance of the mine flag going up on the shaft headgear at half mast, indicating that a fatality had taken place down the shaft. This was a twice, thrice sometimes more weekly happening. We would panic but only on rare occasions was there a reason for fearful expectations of a white miner to grieve about who we would certainly be acquainted with. My father escaped unscathed throughout his career, barring a fall of rock that left him half blind in his right eye. Black miners were expendable and never mourned nor even mentioned by name. In this animal farm, it was more like a slave-filled Roman Circus. Stories would abound how gory the accident was and the circumstances which caused the death of the “boy”. They were buried after repatriation of their bodies to where they came from, or as unsung heroes behind the mine's waste dump in graves with only numbers, no names. Mining operations could of course change at the turn of the wheel of fortune and white contract workers, let alone black migrant workers were the first to suffer mass retrenchments.  This happened to my father for the first time at Freddies, the largest rectangular shaft operation in the world but which all came to naught in the end. When many get killed, or there was a misreading of geological maps and rock formations turned out to draw blank on gold, the mine closed without a flag flown at half mast. This was a “kaffir circus” after all, sometimes you win, sometimes you loose.

The nearest competitor for the Freddies shafts for size and speed of sinking was one being sunk in the USSR at the time. As children we lusted after these facts. As the saying in those days went, everything is bigger in Texas, but nothing bigger and grander than the mines of the Free State. The South African mines being the most labour intensive in the world with concomitant fatality figures never entered our minds. The pioneering character of Freddies, and its impact on dragging the town of Odendaalsrus out of its 19th century slumber, was infectious with excitement. There was no water, no roads, there was no electricity. The only motorized transport belonged to the mine; the only municipal official was the Town Clerk who had all other duties as well under the belt, from being the traffic cop, market auctioneer, births and deaths registry and everything else. Odendaalsrus was a one horse town in the most literal sense. The black location (as black residential areas were called in those days) was a no-go area for the town’s sheriff and mine management alike. Odiel and I did however on occasion venture for walks through the location and found the people quite amiable. The lonesome official of Odendaalsrus municipality was always to be seen riding on his high horse through the town. But he never ventured onto mining property.

There was a core population of Boers in Odendaalsrus that looked at the mining splurges as both beneficial and evil. They had taken it upon themselves to establish churches in the white miners’ community, and attempted to dominate development plans of the mining company. This was post the 1948 Apartheid election victory after all. The ubiquitous Dominee de Kock who tried to reign supreme, but his plans seemed to have backfired. This antiquated state of affairs led the mine owners, at the suggestion of Harry Oppenheimer, to ignore Odendaalsrus to be developed as an urban centre to serve the mines and focus on developing Welkom, about ten miles to the south. Whether by intent or not, to make a point that Odendaalsrus was simply not a development option, Welkom was built with a reputation that its main roads were broad enough to cater for U-turns for ox wagons.

My father’s record of service then shows a break after leaving Freddies, and taking up a stint of employment at Western Reefs, an old and uninteresting mine on the outskirts of the town called Orkney. He was at this mine for just over a year. The reason for the interlude was that my mother had taken ill while we were living in the Freddies camp, and hospitalised in Johannesburg. The kids were placed as boarders at the Sacred Heart Convent in Klerksdorp, the main urban centre of the region about ten miles to the west of Orkney. This was a memorably turbulent time as election fever boiled in Klerksdorp, with its original Boer population in the majority among whites. The character of Klerksdorp is indelibly imprinted by the graveyard of victims of the British concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War. It was one of the electoral hotspots of contention around the impending foundation of British Imperial designs in the form of a rack of race laws. We entered the Apartheid era in 1948 when I was a kid of eight years old. My father was what we called, a “tweegat jakkals” (“two burrow jackal”) – as a mine official in his earlier mining career he was a fervent Smuts supporter. As a white miner he joined the all-white Mineworkers Union, became a shaft steward for most of his post-management career, and went campaigning for the National Party candidate Piet Pelser.  

When my mother recovered and the family reunited, there was a second stint in Freddies which lasted a good number of years. But fate of gold mining fortunes intervened to cut these years down to six. Once the development of tunnels had been completed between the two Freddies shafts, the mine was considered unprofitable and closed down at the blink at survey results of geological formations. To this day it is not clear to me though, what the problem for closure actually was. There was a story that the original borehole assay results had been “salted” that is a shotgun was used to inject extra gold value into the borehole to give an artificially loaded value. The culprits, said to be two guys, Early and Milne, were said to have been jailed but living it up like gentleman as prisoners. They had learnt how to play the “kaffir circus”, a very early manifestation of the modern day Enron story where speculation with financial capital on the wheels of fortunes took all shapes and sizes. There is no reason to doubt the veracity of this story. But doing research on these gentlemen’s records reveals that their misdeeds were either airbrushed from history or they might be the staid professional people with grand achievements to their names as recorded in the annals of South African gold mining. What seems to be the more credible reason is that fault formations made the Freddies shafts badly situated for development of tunnels around the gold bearing reef. The most prosperous mines, President Brand, Free State Geduld and President Steyn, were opened shortly after the closing of Freddies just a mile away. These are still operating today.

After Freddies there was another mining mishap. This time not geologically related to earnings of the mine, but a backlash of nature against penetrating too deeply in the bellybutton of planetary rock. After Freddies my father again went for greener pastures, and landed himself a prime tunnel development job at the newly opened up gold mine in Merriespruit. The horrendous word “retrenched” enters his record of service. The reason was that during tunnelling operations a huge aquifer was struck. Water broke through the rock and there was no stopping its ferocious force. A concrete plug 20 meters thick was hastily constructed close to the mine shaft to stem the flow, but the water pressure simply knocked this out as if it were a sand dune. The water rushed down the shaft with another even more desperate plug cast higher up in the shaft. When an inspection team went down the shaft to monitor this plug, it burst open and the engineers and miners were all drowned. I cannot recall, nor do I find it recorded anywhere, what the fatality figure for this disaster was. When news of this ghastly disaster reached us in the newly built bungalow complex of Merriespruit, there was no word of fatalities. At first we assumed that my father was among the lost not at sea, but a furious underground aquifer that had gone berserk. Later in the morning he pitched at home. He was on the previous inspection team before the fated one. All staff and miners of Merriespruit were either transferred to other mines, or retrenched. Later, many years later in 1994 there was a sequel to the Merriespruit disaster. Scores of people died while sleeping in their beds at night, after a tailings dam wall broke, smothering hundreds of people in a lethal river of black slime. Included in this miserable tragedy were the occupants of the same house we had occupied decades earlier.