Saturday, 16 October 2010

Chile got me thinking..

The Big Read: The saga of the rescue of Chilean miners takes me back to dawn on a bright summer's day in South Africa 50 years ago: drilling engineers and miners plus a few journalists waited silently and tensely as a microphone was lowered 157m underground. They hoped to hear human voices. But the only sound they caught was that of running water.

It was confirmation that 435 miners (some say 437) had died in South Africa's worst mining disaster.

The scene was 22km from Vereeniging: the Clydesdale colliery at Coalbrook, owned by a British firm.

It was the end of a rescue attempt which had been going on for 11 days, with frantic round-the-clock drilling of a 35cm borehole to deliver food and water to possible survivors.

The danger of coal and gold mining in South Africa was well known: the previous year a total of 733 miners, mainly black, had died.

Mining depended on the mass use of unskilled black workers. Apartheid laws restricted them to low-paid labour. Skilled work was reserved for whites.

The Coalbrook death tally told the story: 429 of the victims were black, and six were white. Nearly all the miners were from Lesotho and Mozambique.

Coalbrook served two nearby power stations. The mine's method of work was to cut into the rich coal deposits underground, leaving behind pillars of coal to support tunnel roofs.

Clearly, wrong calculations had been made about the number and thickness of pillars that were needed.

There was talk that existing pillars had been cut into as an easy and inexpensive way to get out more coal, but this was never proved.

Whatever the reason, at 7.30pm on January 21 1960, there was a catastrophic collapse underground. Later studies reported that some 900 coal pillars had disintegrated. An area of 3km² collapsed.

At the time, nearly 1000 men were working underground. About half of them escaped up an incline shaft.

Rescue teams poured in from gold and coal mines far and wide. They went down Coalbrook's main shaft but were blocked by collapsed ground and methane gas. The danger was acute. Instead, drilling was begun 1.5km away, in the middle of a vast stretch of maize fields, over the place where it was thought the entombed miners might be in Level 11. At the same time, half a kilometre away, work began on a bigger shaft, with a 3.6m diameter.

Hopes for the quickest contact with survivors were pinned on the first drill as it cut through layers of sand and shale, hard dolomite rock and coal. When the breakthrough to Level 11 finally happened, the drilling machinery was withdrawn from the borehole and a microphone was lowered.

It was already believed that there were unlikely to be survivors. The collapse had been too big and too widespread. The sound of only water hundreds of feet below confirmed the worst fears. Drilling the second shaft went on for a few more days and was then ended. It was hopeless. The bodies were never recovered. The main shaft was abandoned and sealed with concrete slabs.

As it happened I was on the night shift at the Rand Daily Mail when news of the disaster came from Frank Day, the paper's correspondent in Vereeniging.

I drove to the mine and at around 1am, under the glaring lights of the main shaft and amidst the bustle of rescue teams getting ready to go underground into the unknown, I leaned on my car bonnet and wrote the first full report on what had happened. The full scale of the disaster was not yet certain so my report began cautiously: "At least 250 men - and perhaps 500 - are trapped 600 feet underground ."

Getting the story back to the newspaper was a problem. It was an era long before cellphones, so I had to beg the mine's small switchboard, swamped with rescue calls, to give me a line for a short time. I stood on the verandah of the clubhouse - for whites - and, within sight and hearing of the wives and children of the trapped white miners, dictated - shouted because of the poor line - the details of the ongoing tragedy.

As the days passed, I was among the host of reporters who covered the story. I wanted to speak to black miners who had been able to escape from the mine, but they were locked away in their segregated compound. The Security Police arrived, to check that there was no "agitation" among them.

One of the other reporters was Joe Gqabi of the left-wing New Age newspaper. Standing next to the main shaft, he and I agreed to a deal: he would get into the compound, from which I was barred, and interview black miners. I would interview white mine officials, who would not speak to him, and question them. We would then share our information.

But as we reached agreement, a group of burly white men surrounded us. They were seemingly miners from other mines. One of them told us threateningly: "We don't want to see a white man speaking to a k****r ." Joe and I looked at each other, and backed away.

Years later, Joe went into exile. He became head of the African National Congress mission in Zimbabwe. He was assassinated by the South African Security Police. The miners' inequality in work and pay was carried over into death. The widows of white miners were entitled to lifelong pensions of up to £396 a year.*

But there was no pension for black widows, only a one-off maximum grant of £252. The year 1960 proved cataclysmic in many ways.

Less than two months after Coalbrook, on March 21, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, called on blacks to leave their passes at home and offer themselves for arrest at police stations. It became the day of the Sharpeville massacre, and the start of a new era. But it was to be many more years before black miners won the right to equal pay and work. -Pogrund is a former deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail.

Roosters end Note : The Chile miners earn $1600 a month. Over R11 000. Today on average 200 miners die in South African mines each year. They are paid 3000 rand per month.

Apartheid nostalgia can go fuck itself.

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