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Black workers in South African mines

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Environmental Racism and Nuclear Development

(March 28, 1993) After the World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg, Austria in 1992, two members of South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) visited Holland to talk about the situation of black mineworkers in their country.

Dirk Bannink

One of them works on an education project and the other works on health and safety issues. The NUM has more than 200,000 members and at the Palaborwa mine, where these two men are active, 100% of the workers are unionized. The workers in the mines are exclusively black, while management is almost exclusively white.


US-South African weapons-grade uranium deal

South Africa, which officially renounced its nuclear weapons production in 1991, has asked the US to buy its weapons-grade uranium. The idea is that the US would dilute the highly enriched uranium (HEU) to a lower-grade uranium fuel and sell it back for South Africa's nuclear reactors. According to Leonard Spector of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, both governments stand to gain: South Africa would get fuel it cannot produce on its own and the US would make sure Africa can no longer make nuclear weapons....But no one outside the South African government actually knows how much enriched uranium it has produced since secretly launching its nuclear weapons program in the 1970s. According to the African National Congress, South Africa has produced more than 200 kg of HEU - enough to fuel 25 nuclear warheads - at the Atomic Energy Corporation's top-secret facility in Pelindaba near Pretoria.

The ANC says a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency, while recently visiting South Africa on a short-notice inspection, found equipment used to manufacture parts for a nuclear explosive device at an abandoned plant near the Pelindaba Research Plant, including assembly technology, testing gear and metallurgical equipment used to make "fissile cores" for nuclear bombs.

A report in Nucleonics Week, included in a package released late December by the ANC, alleged that an IAEA team discovered South Africa clandestinely produced ''several hundred'' kilograms of weapons grade uranium during the 1970s and the 1980s. According to the journal's September 1992 edition, "The amount of weapons-grade uranium produced at this plant may well be in excess of 400kg..."

Sources: The Dallas Morning News (US), 28 Feb. 1993; Inter Press Service (GreenNet, gn:nuc.facilities, 25 Dec. 1992).

The men talked about the situation in Northern Transvaal where the Palaborwa mine is located. The mine is owned by the Palaborwa Mining Company, with Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ) as its greatest shareholder at 39.8%. Although it is operated primarily as a copper mine, it contributes an estimated 300 tons as a by-product annually to the South African uranium production.

There are approximately 130,000 inhabitants in the city of Palaborwa, which was created expressly for the mine. The population is a mixture from across the country. The unemployment rate there is very high, but about the national average: 75%. Three out of five people are illiterate. Near the city are piles of chemical wastes and uranium waste-tailings. In the middle of these dumps the mining company built an artificial lake stocked with fish. These fish are there for monitoring the amount of chemical substance in the water; if the fish die, the concentration is too high.

There is no information on the dangers of the tailings available to the residents and workers. Houses are built on the edges of the tailings piles, and children play in and with the waste. After heavy rainfalls, large amounts of the waste slides from the sites to the houses. Thirty kilometers from Palaborwa a school has been built in a uranium tailings dump.

The consequences for the inhabitants and workers are severe: higher rates of all kinds of sicknesses. Many mineworkers are told they have tuberculosis; most likely, though, their illnesses, which affect their eyes, lungs and other organs, are radiation-related. There is also an increasing number of spontaneous abortions and miscarriages in the mine's vicinity.

Although every mine has a doctor, they are paid by the mine owners and are taking care of the company's interests rather than the miners'. They always tell the workers that an illness is not the consequence of their work but that it has other causes.

Mineworkers receive industrial masks from the company, but there is no education about safe working conditions. The company is always on the lookout for what it calls "firebrands", and rapidly discharges anyone questioning the conditions. As soon as a strong group is formed which demands, for instance, information on safety measures or safer working conditions, that group will be split up or its members fired. There are, after all, no problems with finding new employees with an unemployment rate of 75%.

When a mine is no longer profitable it is closed down and the company leaves to go to more profitable areas. Of course, cleaning up is no part of the company's mining activities and all the waste is left behind without even monitoring.

There is at present no anti-mining movement in South Africa. there are some environmental groups, but these are almost exclusively occupied with preserving natural landscapes. These groups are formed by whites and they are not (or don't want to be) informed about the environmental and health consequences of mining activities.

The African National Congress (ANC) has no clear policy on nuclear power and uranium mining. It is not yet a main issue. The NUM is of course most interested in jobs, but there are some people who are busy with the safety and health conditions in the workplace. Until a short time ago, though, they did not even know that uranium was dangerous. No information as to just what uranium was was available to them. Thus, visiting the World Uranium Hearing was for them very important, as well as a revelation.

World Bank advised "stimulate emigration of dirty industry"

Vice President of the World Bank Lawrence H. Summers said, in an internal memo dated December 1991, "Shouldn't the World Bank stimulate the emigration of dirty industry to the less developed countries?" He later added, "The less populated countries of Africa are under contaminated," and clinched his statements with, "Concern over an agent that causes prostrate cancer in one person out of a million would obviously be much greater in a country where people survive until they get prostrate cancer than in a country where the mortality rate for those under five years is 200 in one thousand."

Summers explains what some of his colleagues in the World Bank think but don't say: "I think that the logic of sending toxic waste to countries with less revenue is impeccable, and that we should assume it [the logic]."

Translated from "No Comment" column of Ecoprensa (Chile), No. 33, July 1992, p.11.

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As with the copper mines at Palaborwa, South Africa produces all its uranium as a by-product of other mining activities. Of its total annual production (15% of the world production in the early/mid 1980s, but 'only' 8.4% in 1989), 95% is a by-product of gold mines. The country has three principal uranium deposits: Palaborwa, Witwatersrand and Karoo Basin (Cape Province). More important than Palaborwa is the yellowcake production of the fifteen gold mines of Witwatersrand, owned by two companies: Anglo-American Corporation (AAC) and General Mining and Finance Corporation (GENCOR). AAC is in control of about 60% of all gold and uranium mining activities within South Africa. Both companies work closely with the South African Atomic Energy Commission.

The main importing countries re the USA, France, Japan, Taiwan and Germany. The most important consumers of South African uranium are EXXON, COGEMA, Kansai and Taipower.

Due to low wages as a result of the racist Apartheid system and due to the exploitation of uranium, together with gold and copper, uranium mining is economically extremely feasible, even though the ore contains only 0.01% uranium. Because of the close connection of mining operations with the system of migrant workers and "homeland" policy, creating the so-called "Bantustans", all Bantu-speaking peoples of South Africa are affected by the hazards of mining and radioactive emissions from the tailings.


  • Conversation in Amsterdam, 27 Sept. 1992
  • World Uranium Hearing Grey Book 1992
  • "The African Uranium Producing Countries: A rough political-economic analysis", R. Huisman, Sept. 1990, The Netherlands

Contact: NUM, Box 3658, Witbank 1035, South Africa.