Synopsis: In this feature, Scott tours a gold mine where Black South African's are paid 8 cents an hour, sleep on wooden boards, and where, instead of receiving medical attention after contracting Tuberculosis, workers are sent home and the disease spreads to their families. Managers at the mine justify this appalling treatment by highlighting that workers are fed a "balanced diet."
NATIVES AT 8 CENTS AN HOUR
'But the Diet's Balanced'
This is another of Jack Scott's series of articles on life in Africa.
SPRINGS, South Africa –Here at the great Blakfontein Mine in the hills south of Johannesburg we saw and heard the story of the African native's role in a white man's economy based on gold.
It is not a pretty story.
In this region, alone, known as the Central Witwatersrand, there are more than 300,000 natives working deep in the mines and less than 45,000 white overseers and technicians.
The Vlakfontein is a model mine, a show case which the powerful South Africa Chamber of Mines uses frequently for its regular tours and presumably the conditions of native labor on view here are to be taken as the best there are. They would make the worst Welsh coal mine in the Rhonda Valleys look like the Garden of Eden.
The average pay of the African, who works in eight-hour shifts around the clock in sweltering heat a mile or more below the earth's surface, is four shillings a day. That is less than 60 cents.
(In the first two months of this year alone, according to a gold production statement by the Chamber of Mines, the "estimated working profit" – at the current rate of exchange – was close to $16,000,000.)
At this particular mine, which employs about 250 whites, there are some 3000 natives "recruited" from many different parts of South Africa and serving "contracts" of anywhere from months to a year.
Their conditions of work would make Simon Legree a winsome candidate for the Humane Medal.
* * *
As our tour party walked to the "compound" where the African labor is quartered, the manager, a tall man dressed in white gabardine, assured us that "our boys are well looked after. In addition to their pay they get free board and room and they're fed a balanced ration. Why, we often send boys back to their tribes a hundred pounds heavier."
We were to hear this several times during the day. "A balanced diet" would appear to be the gold industry's charitable gift to the black man.
The "compound" is an immense place, the area of the cricket field at Brockton Point. On four sides, making an enclosure, are concrete stable-like barracks. In bare-walled rooms the size of an ordinary Vancouver living room 20 Africans, segregated according to the tribes they represent are bunked in narrow double-tiered shelves. They sleep on bare wood.
"Our boys don't like mattresses," the manager said.
"How do you know they don't?" asked a woman social worker from Germany who was on the tour and clearly determined to ask frank questions.
The manager looked nonplussed and answered abruptly: "Why, we just happen to know, that's all."
In the mess hall we looked at great mounds of greasy fish, imbedded in flies. "This gives them a lot of good body-building proteins," the manager said.
* * *
We were taken then to the non-European hospital where the native labor is treated for accidents or illness.
En route the manager pointed out a dozen small housing units where a group of Africans on the administrative staff are quartered. Unlike the others, this handful of natives are allowed to have their wives with them. "Those fellows live just like ordinary, civilized people," the manager said proudly.
At the hospital I had confirmed for me the story I'd picked up in Johannesburg that helps to account for South Africa's appalling tubercular rate.
Nothing whatever is done about natives in the mine who are discovered to have TB. "It's callous, I know," one of the senior medical officers explained, "but when we discover a boy with tuberculosis we just send him back to where he came from – and, of course, he passes it right on to his family."
In the case of silicosis the African is given a flat payment of $50 to $75, spending on his length of service in the mine, and he, too, is sent back to his home without treatment.
"He becomes a king in his village with that kind of money," the health officer said, "and lives happily every after – which, unfortunately isn't very long."
At this the German social worker was moved to protest, at which the health officers said, "My dear lady, we give them everything possible. After all, we haven't the facilities in this country to look after the white people properly. And after all, what do the natives contribute?"
I refrained from mentioning that they contribute eight hours of hard labour every day at less than eight cents and hour... and, of course, a balanced diet.
"Everything we do for them here is free," the manager said, "Even the artificial limbs."