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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Shaft Steward Mhlabeni recalls Kinross Mine Disaster

Elliot Mhlabeni

Mbhobana Elliot Mhlabeni was born on the 18th June, 1943, in a village alongside the Mbashe River, close to Mthatha. At the age of 3 his mother died and his early childhood was devoted to tending to his father’s ubuhlanti, as a shepherd. From his early, contemplative years, he viewed the world from his rural perspectives as presenting three options for what he would like to become in life. The first option was to stay on at school like his o9lder brothers. But for him this was no option. After reaching the 4th grade his brothers received preference and he was kept at home by his father as shepherd to tend cattle and goats.

     The second option he thought about was to get a job with the white owner of a local trading store. The work that this entailed seemed interesting, but the prospect of working for the white storekeeper and speaking English was not only intimidating, but the man concerned, the storekeeper was rough and used his store as a regular shebeen. This also did not appeal to him one bit. His father was a Minister ofr the United Baptist Church in Zion. In his later years Mbhobana would follow in his father’s footsteps. But, he is quick to add, in his younger days he could consume massive amounts of beer, the traditional home brew in the rural Transkei, mkomboti.

     His third, the option to “join the mines” that he had sub-consciously chosen all along. Why? “I wanted to work for the government” was the short, confident answer. Interrogating this idea it soon became clear that the distinction made between a normal job and living in “barracks” as single men were two totally different options. “Joining the mines was to become a man. The military-type regimentation of labour in the mines seemed less threatening, in fact anything but threatening, than having to fend for oneself in the world alone. This, according to Mbhobana was the way his peers also perceived going to the mines. They would be together in compounds. They were also prepared for this with the many discussions with older folk who did their stints of contracts on the mines.     

     So “joining up”, working period contracts, living collectively in “barracks” seemed a short route to earn some cash and accumulate capital to pay labola for a wife and build a homestead. “I work with my friends in the mines and nothing changes at home: I work to come back”. This is a very sensible way of looking at life from a rural and traditional perspective.  

     Reviewing Mbhobana’s mining career as a whole it is clear that with him we have a people’s person, a people builder. Even though his rather fanciful idea of “working for the government” seems na├»ve, all the same it could have been a defence against the obstacles that older men returning from the mines placed in the minds of the youth. To become a man is a challenge. And going to the mines had many challenges, it was dangerous and white bosses were cruel. The very idea of working deep down under the surface was intimidating enough without the embellishments of the returning workers telling stories of how the roof could come down on a person for no reason whatsoever. In the face of these diversions Mbhobana remained a sensible lad and what he had in him was proved over his achievements and long mining career.  

     So, without much trepidation the adventurous Mbhobana embarked on a bus for Gauteng. Hardly had he crossed the Mbashe River when the bus was stopped by white police patrolling in a Hippo. The passengers were told to disembark and subjected to intrusive interrogation. “My God”, recalls, Mbhobana, “these white people are indeed monsters!” However, after being subjected to some slapping around, punching and cursing, it was obvious that they were not what the police were looking for. They were hunting for a group of Poqo militants who were responsible for the murders of five whites in the area, including an unborn baby.

     The first years on the mines Mbhobana had nothing regular as jobs, but drifted from mine to mine at the whims of TEBA. His first job was at the mighty Harmony Mine, close to Virginia, where he started as a machine driller. While not dissatisfied, this was a gruelling job but was better paid than even team leaders. His second job, a year later, was as a surface loco driver. During his third and fourth year, Geduld and Government Leases respectively, he was employed to be an assistant to an Underground Manager, a sort of retainer job to a white official which made even the white miners respectful to him. If the Manager was unable to visit the many places while on shift, he would send Mbhobana to outlying places for brief report backs. So Mbhobana often found white miners and even shift bosses pleading with him to keep the Manager off their backs.

      During his 5th year of employment, at East Daggafontein, he Mbhobana was a team leader, keeping haulage ways open and safe.

Training Instructor

     Elliot’s 6th year working on the mines was at Winkelhaak. Winkelhaak is on the Far East Rand and was one of the first examples of mines amalgamating with one another to form area-based monopolies. Winkelhaak formed part of a group of mines including Kinross, Leslie, Bracken, Evander and a number of smaller mines. This made it possible for these mines to share compounds, reduction plants, and a central training centre among other things. Three years after joining Winkelhaak in 1963, he was employed as a Training Instructor at the induction centre for new recruits in 1969. This job he held until his retirement from the mines in 1993, a few years after becoming active as a National Union of Mineworkers organizer. He enjoyed training, and excelled at it.

     Training Instructors were highly regarded and ranked with the position of an induna, or tribal ombudsman. Comrade Mbhobana never considered leaving this job and for a long time never took leave. Eventually the system caught up with him as TEBA came out with a new regulation that all workers had to take at least three months leave per year. Mbhobana takes a cynical view: “the only reason why TEBA did this was because they needed to earn fees for sending people to the mines”. He was as scathing about the then Transkei Homeland Administration which similarly bedevilled his life on the mines. Matamzima ordered all “Transkeians” had to return home once per year. This, according to Elliot, was merely to keep border guards flush in the pockets.

     As a veteran miner Mbhobana was street wise when it came to the tricks played by mine management, administrative and otherwise. He was recruited into the National Union of Mineworkers and was ever able and willing to help out with any complaints that mine workers brought to him. Even long after he left the mines altogether he was always free to help ex-miners who experienced problems in settling outstanding issues with either TEBA, the Chamber of Mines, the mines they worked on or even the government, they know where to go to: Mbhobana Elliot Mhlabeni.

      Between growing up in the rural areas and working on the mines there are world’s apart, but worlds brought together in the lives of men who often had no inclination to think things through about the social iniquities they were living under. One can well imagine how myths and legends based on personalities and happenings in the mines spread to the rural areas. And no less so than in the pristine area of the Transkei along the Mbashe River, where Mbhobana grew up. The sheer scale of the tragedies in terms of miners who went to work on the mines and never came back, massive accidents that made world headlines, or illnesses that plagued ex-mine workers in the rural homelands, had all the makings of a cultural impact which may seem far removed from reality, but in the minds of the youth real enough for them to construct their life expectations when planning and going to work on the mines on these myths.

     Mbhobana became a recruiting organizer for NUM in 1989. On this he blandly comments, “we worked under Management. The workers mistrusted us as they thought that the white bosses were attempting to tease or appease them”.

     He recalls a particularly sensitive story that eventually led to death benefits being deducted and paid out by provident funds. At Winkelhaak a young man was stabbed and died. Like was the case in those days, men who died of natural or work-related causes were buried namelessly behind the compounds. Nobody batted an eyelid. This was the way things were done.

     However, in this instance of the stabbed youth his recently betrothed wife travelled from the Transkei to pay her last respects. Top visit the grave she needed to get the permission of the mine manager. After permission was denied, she pleaded that all that she wanted was to place her hands over his grave and pray for him. So a great meeting took place organized by the Training Centre Instructors. They proposed that all take 50 c from their own pockets to pay for the exhumation of the young man and take him to his people in the Transkei for a proper burial.

     The mine management feared a precedent had been set which they decided to pre-empt by deducting money from migrant workers pay for “death benefits”. Mine workers had to contribute but the mine managers contributed nothing. This is how death benefits came to function in Provident Fund which was established for white miners only. Once the NUM became influential workers stopped paying for death benefits while the mine bosses had to contribute not only for burial costs, but compensation for widows and orphans as well.

177 Kinross Miners die, September 1986

From Time Magazine, September 1986: “Some 2,400 miners were on the day shift last Tuesday morning at the Kinross gold mine, 65 miles from Johannesburg. A welding team was repairing a broken track for one of the trains that help carry gold ore to the surface. Suddenly, an acetylene tank sparked and flared. Flames swept through the tunnel, igniting plastic-covered wiring, which in turn set fire to polyurethane foam that keeps the walls dry and solid. Within minutes the mine shaft filled with thick black smoke containing toxic fumes from the burning plastic. Choking miners immediately fell and died of asphyxiation. When the initial 9 1/2-hour rescue operation ended, 177 were dead, one was missing, and 235 were injured, making Kinross the worst gold-mine disaster in South African history. All but five of the victims were black, and the black-dominated National Union of Mineworkers denounced the "unacceptably low safety standards" in the mines. In fact, Kinross last year lost its top safety rating. But the mine's general manager said the plastics that burned had been considered safe. A government investigation is now under way”.

     Memories of the disaster at Kinross still haunt Comrade Mbhobana. He was part of the rescue effort. “Dead and wounded, were loaded into busses. These busses then had to drive for miles seeking clinics and hospitals where the wounded could be treated. Some ended up in hospitals as far as Ermelo” A few days after the catastrophe the mine managers were still tying to get the workers back into the mine.

      A few years later NUM organized a rally in honour of the dead which turned out to be pandemonium. The Police were called in who resorted to tear gassing the rally and outlawing a strike.

     Mbhobana got married in 1979 and settled down after his mining career as migrant worker. He built his ubuhlanti in his home village. He has since settled and lives in Bhisho. He is father of six children, the first born in 1984, and the last born 1998. His homestead thrives with 18 head of cattle, a larger number of sheep and goats. He is a good agriculturist and remains an influential man in his community.

Anxious miners waiting on surface to hear the 
latest news from underground (BBC picture)