Gold, Platinum and Poverty

August 17, 2012 — Leave a comment

I tend to avoid commenting on this blog about specific social and political issues in South Africa; I’m well aware that my perspective is not much more than a pinhole. But this week’s shooting of protesting mineworkers outside Johannesburg that left over 30 dead was shocking. It brought to mind the killing of Vietnam War protestors at Kent State in 1970. I’ll always remember seeing the famous photo of the girl grieving over her slain friend on the front page of the newspaper I was delivering. It began to open my young eyes to a more complex and unfair world far beyond where my bike could take me.

Granted, the Kent State students were unarmed and the striking miners had machetes, but I think using rubber and bean bag bullets instead of live ammunition might have been successful in dispersing the miners and avoiding fatalities. Then again, I’m not an expert in crowd control.

What I do have growing perspective on is the wide economic disparities in the country. The South African newspapers say the miners are striking to raise their monthly wages from $625 to $1,563. These miners are extracting some of the most precious metals on earth, for an industry that is a core component of a healthy South African economy. Mining is one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous jobs, with additional long-term health risks. And these guys make only $600 a month?

Having been to South Africa and doing a constant rand-dollar conversion in my head, I know the cost of living there is similar to the United States. And yet the average monthly salary for basic-skill miners here is about $2,700 for surface mines and $3,520 for underground mines. The lower end of the US salary range is barely enough to support a family, but it’s still four times the current salary of the striking miners.

These South African miners work grueling days pulling platinum and gold out of the ground for bankers and hip hop stars to flaunt on their wrists — and earn barely $150 a week? Mtuseni’s mom works long days cleaning airline cabins between flights, and earns about $240 per month. We can talk about the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in the United States, which is indeed troubling. But the economic disparities in South Africa continue to shock me.

I don’t have a macro view of the situation in South Africa or of the mining industry. But I grieve for the families of the miners, as I feel for all the people like Mtuseni’s family and neighbors — stuck in a cycle of poverty in Africa’s wealthiest country.


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