Stories and Traveltips

ID #5161

The Profound Case of Two Gold Mines, Witwatersrand Goldfields, South Africa.

South and Southern Africa is an astonishing place. One example was related to me by Etsko Schuitema, who subsequently changed his first name to Ibrahim. In the early 70’s he was a post-graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where he was studying industrial psychology. For his masters thesis, he was asked to study the case of two gold mines, hereafter referred to as Mines A and B respectively. Mine A was the largest, richest and safest gold mine in the world. It had the best housing conditions, the best safety record and paid the highest wages in the industry at the time. In addition, it had white management and supervision – the reason being that job reservation for whites was a cornerstone policy of ruling the National Party, architects of Apartheid. On the other hand, mine B was a marginal mine. As a result, it had shocking housing conditions – workers were accommodated in housing had been built to accommodate Chinese labourers imported to work on the gold mines 75 years earlier. In addition its safety record was shocking, and it paid the lowest wages in the industry at the time. It also had white management and supervision for the same reasons as were mentioned above.

In one case, relationships between workers and management was excellent while, in the other case, such relationships were so bad that it was thought likely violence might spontaneously occur,  resulting in “….dead bodies being left lying around”. The reason why Ibrahim was given this problem to investigate is that, counter-intuitively, the relationships between workers on Mine B were excellent while the opposite was true on mine A. Note that this is opposite to that which one might expect to find in textbooks on the subject.

Clearly, since both mines had white supervision and management, race was equally applicable in both cases and could not explain the difference between the two mines.

The reason emerged after an in-depth investigation. There is a long-standing tradition in the Witwatersrand gold mines for volunteers to form what are called Proto Teams. Such teams, which typically consist of white shift-bosses as well as their trusted black “boss boys” (a pejorative term these days but widely used at the time) volunteer, without pay or any other form of compensation, to go underground after an accident to rescue those trapped or injured. In other words, they were willing to put their own lives at risk in order to save the lives of their colleagues.

Bear in mind that Proto team members and black workers could not be more different. In many cases, they were from different races, spoke different languages, were of a different colour, from a different culture and had different levels of education. Furthermore, because the mines are so large (15000 employees in some cases), they did not necessarily even know each other. Proto team members are not necessarily "nice" people – often they are tough, brusque individuals. So the workers did not necessarily like them. However, they KNEW that, in the event of their being in grave danger, Proto teams would rescue them. On mine A however this was not the case. In the event of an accident, senior management would delegate responsibility for rescuing those “in harm’s way” to others. If you KNOW (i.e. feel as opposed to think) that someone is willing to give his life for you, would you not be willing to do anything for them in return, irrespective of differences that may exist between you? When the "chips are down" such differences are insignificant.

Instead, many Africans, regardless of their differences, share underlying values such as truth, loyalty, integrity, dignity, honesty, patience, kindness and generosity. Such values bind us together in unexpected ways. Failure to recognize the importance of such values renders one incapable of understanding relationships between people who otherwise have absolutely nothing in common.  

Ibrahim has since embroidered on this fundamental truth, during the course of which he has become world-renowned.

What makes this story particularly poignant for me is that my father Arthur William McIver died in an underground accident in 1948. And, co-incidentally, his shift-boss volunteered but was refused permission to rescue him by senior management, who considered it too risky. Disgusted and upset, his shift-boss left the mine soon thereafter, never to return.

Moral of the story: All you need is love, love conquers all, it is better to give rather than it is to receive, love thy neighbour as thyself, etc.

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Last update: 2014-05-14 14:13
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.11

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