About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

3. The racial workplace

Racial and gender discrimination in the workplace

1. Race and racial discrimination have been dominant themes in the history of workplace relations in South Africa. This discrimination has manifested itself in various forms and operated at different levels. Some were more subtle while others were crude. Among these are the following:

. Occupational discrimination (the colour bar);

. Discrimination in wage rates;

. Discriminatory benefits and conditions of employment;

. Labour legislation;

. Discriminatory access to education and training;

. Other labour market regulations, eg. pass laws and exclusion of women.

2. These forms of discrimination fitted in with the state's dual labour market policy, which comprised a primary and a secondary sector. The primary sector concerned regulations to do with the employment of white workers, who enjoyed a privileged status in the labour market. The secondary sector, on the other hand, comprised black workers and sought to regulate their employment in a way which curtailed their rights and freedoms. Thus racial discrimination in the workplace should be seen in the context of discriminatory labour market policies which evolved from the earliest days of South Africa's industrialisation. It should also be understood within a context of racial discrimination and apartheid in the broader society, where black South Africans - Africans and women in particular - were accorded second class status.

3. The origins of workplace discrimination can be attributed to the interests of three groups during South Africa's industrial development, namely, employers, white workers and the state. Furthermore, it is important to note that all these interests and the forms of discrimination they advocated were founded on notions of white superiority and black inferiority which can be traced back to the earliest days of colonialism. It is these notions which have been used to justify forms of discrimination against black workers in the workplace. But the meaning of such notions cannot be understood in isolation from the interests of employers, white workers and the state.

Employers and workplace discrimination

4. The role of employers in putting in place discriminatory practices and policies was both direct and indirect. It was direct insofar as employers actively pursued policies and practices which discriminated against black workers in their workplaces. Although there were variations according to sector, discriminatory policies and practices existed (and continue to exist) in all sectors of the economy. The role of employers was also indirect insofar as they implemented discriminatory policies of the state, before and during apartheid.

5. The question then is, why did employers practise racial discrimination in the workplace? As outlined above, racial discrimination provided them with cheap labour as well as secure their profits. This was achieved by putting in place a number of mechanisms, including:

6 . The ideology of white superiority: This meant that no white person should work under the guidance or supervision of a black person. The effect of this was to keep black workers in perpetual subordination to anybody who was white and to relegate them to second-class occupational status in the workplace. Von Holdt's research on workplace politics in South Africa revealed the pervasiveness of apartheid in the workplace.

7 . Mechanisms of control: The use of black labour in South Africa has always been characterised by the use of what Eddie Webster termed "racial despotism". This has taken various forms at different stages of South Africa's economic development. Mining is notorious for some of the most extreme measures of control, eg. forced recruitment, the compound system and the migrant labour system in general. However, other sectors of the economy also used control of different kinds in which supervisors and other layers of line management performed a crucial function. Surveillance by management, including the use of spies and the use of electronic bugging devices, played a central part in ensuring the success of these measures of control. The existence of racial discrimination in the workplace, coupled with the use of these measures led von Holdt to characterise these mechanisms as the "apartheid workplace regime".

8. Thus cheap labour was achieved through various measures of control which were intended to ensure that black workers had no rights and remained powerless. These measures which were designed to oppress black workers were then reinforced by control mechanisms put in place and enforced by state agencies like the police, the courts, etc.

9. Denial of trade union and collective bargaining rights: This strategy was pivotal to the strategy of ensuring the cheapness and servility of black labour. Although white workers have enjoyed these rights for almost a century, employers continued to resist their extension to black workers until recently. Even when these workers finally got these rights recognised by law, employers continued to resist collective bargaining and trade unions for black workers. The phase of union growth since 1973 was characterised by fierce battles for recognition against employer resistance. The Heinemann struggle of the mid-1970s is but one of countless battles by workers for the recognition of these rights.

An injury to one... is an injury to all!

10 . The use of coercive measures to ensure compliance: A central feature of the control discussed above was the used of coercion and violence against black workers. Although many employers worked hand in glove with state agencies in this, it is possible to identify an independent role which employers played in violating the rights of their employees. This often took forms such as assaults, dismissals, threats of dismissals and failure to pay workers' wages.

11. Twenty years ago, the South African Labour Bulletin examined the issue of race discrimination and employment practices and concluded that 'this system of discrimination secures the cheapness of African labour. These are the employers' colour bars and we shall call them the exploitation colour bars." (SALB, 5, 3, March-April 1977)

12. The notion of exploitation colour bars is important as it reveals the role of employers in perpetuating racial discrimination. Up until the 1970s, conventional wisdom had it that racial discrimination at the workplace occurred because white workers fought for the maintenance of the job colour bar or job reservation. However, subsequent research has challenged this view by arguing that in fact there were two colour bars, namely, the job colour bar of white workers, and the "wage" or "exploitation colour bars" of the employers. (see Johnstone, F A, Race, Class and Gold).

13 . Lack of training for black workers: Capital have always been opposed to the training of black workers. Where such training took place it was one of promoting the ability of blacks to serve the white baas effectively in line with their "thata lapha, beka lapha" syndrome. Up to today, personnel and human resource policies are oriented towards tightening the above-mentioned mechanisms of control and to ensure that the price of labour remains as cheap as possible. Thus training for black was remain very limited and in most cases non existent. It is not surprising that the 1995 and 1996 World Competitiveness Reports ranked South Africa very poorly in human resource development.

14 . White workers and workplace discrimination: The role of white workers in promoting racial discrimination while not central to the commission hearings, it should be noted that racial discrimination made it possible for white workers to remain a privileged elite enjoying many privileges and rights which were denied to black workers. On many occasions they resisted attempts to allow black workers into occupations reserved for them, even though black workers were to receive lower wages in those jobs.

15. Although employers and white workers had different interests, both sought to achieve these interests at the expense of black workers.

16 . The state and labour market discrimination: Up until recently, many black workers have held the view that the South African state is working hand in glove with employers. This view comes from the fact that various governments were seen to be promoting the interests of employers through measures such as the migrant labour system, pass laws, the suppression of trade union activity and job reservation. Women workers who up to today remain oppressed, were excluded from the labour market or placed in low paying and often repetitive jobs with very little regard to their health and safety.

Women's employment under Apartheid

17. Apartheid oppression reproduced a highly stratified labour market in which a large number of workers laboured in dehumanising conditions without effective rights or protection. Black women workers were, in particular, the victims of a triple oppression at the workplace - being oppressed as blacks, as workers, and as women.

18. The history of this triple oppression has left us with a legacy in which women are clustered in jobs that can be defined as typical female jobs, especially in services. Women are represented disproportionately in low income brackets. And their concentration in flexible and unskilled jobs and small business contributes to their low incomes. Only a small percentage of women form part of corporate management. Finally, women represent a major percentage of the unemployed. In our view business played an important role in the creation of this situation.


19. In 1991 women represented 36,3 percent of the formal labour force. This coincides with the sectoral concentration of women in 'typical female' jobs.

20. These jobs are mainly in the service sector - e.g. catering, retail, domestic, clerical and secretarial work. This is the case in both the private and public sectors (de Bruyn, 1995 and Tshiki, 1995). In those few manufacturing sectors where women predominate (such as clothing), the work performed is regarded as women's work. Table 2 reflects the sexual division of labour in the workforce. It indicates that women are located primarily in service occupations.

Table 2

Source: O'Reagan and Thompson, ILO Equality for women Project, 1993


21. Women are concentrated in low-paid jobs, Table 3 shows that women represent 59 percent of the R1,000 R2,999 per annum income bracket and a mere 6.4 percent of the R100,000.00 R299,999 income bracket.

Table 3

Source: O'Reagan and Thompson, ILO Equality for women project, 1993

22. Reasons for women's low income include their concentration in jobs that are flexible and low-paid. Flexible jobs include casual work, part time work, sub-contracted work, seasonal work, part time work and home based work. Women are also concentrated in the informal sector and small businesses which are characterised by low wages and bad working conditions.

23. Also, flexible labour is inadequately protected in legislation. Domestic workers and farm workers were only covered by labour law as late as last year, while the Basic Conditions of Employment Act was only extended to them in 1993. Homeworkers do not enjoy the protection of the LRA. Domestic workers are still excluded the unemployment Insurance Act. They also do not enjoy a state-legislated minimum wage.

24. Limited employment opportunities of women are linked to women's responsibility for unpaid work; producing and maintaining children, housework and caring for the sick and aged. This limits their opportunities for participation in the formal labour force. The lack of adequate facilities for children and foe the sick and aged increased the burden of women.

25. Women's responsibility for unpaid work is often used by employers to justify discrimination at the workplace. The perception that, women's income is supplementary to that of her husband or partner (who is normally regarded as the main breadwinner) reinforces this discrimination. In fact in 19% of households women are the primary of sole breadwinner.


26. African women make up disproportionate share of the unemployed as 50 percent of them are unemployed compared to 9 percent of white women.

27. Reasons for the high unemployment rate of women relate very closely to the present inequalities in the country. Among others, these include inequalities in education, skills, training and income. This places them in a weaker position (compared with men) in entering the labour market.

Managerial positions

28. Domestically and internationally women workers continue to be discriminated against in areas such as pay, promotions and recruitment. This can be attributed to apartheid laws and sex discrimination.

29. The legacy of apartheid means that women of different race groups are situated differently in the occupational division of labour.

30. There are very few women, especially black women, in managerial and supervision position. In 1990, as Table 4 shows, less that 0,5 percent of managers were African women.

Table 4

Managerial and supervisory percentage by race and gender (1990)



















Coloured & Asian










Source: Agenda No. 24, 1995

Sexual harassment

31Sexual harassment has caused extensive problems for women at their workplaces, including those related to absenteeism, job loss, merit increases, promotions and both psychological and physical stress.

32. Sexual harassment results from racist and sexist practices and attitudes. Discriminatory practices that exist at work generally put men in positions of power which they may use for sexual maneuvering. People in lower positions and less secure positions, most often women, are targets of harassment. In short, sexual harassment is one form of the abuse of power.

33. Unwanted sexual advances in the employment sphere are common. Local and international research shows that, although sexual harassment also occurs in other spheres (e.g. university campuses and schools), 90% of all sexual harassment takes place at work. Research shows that workplace sexual harassment usually occurs where women are subordinates. In most cases it involves a male supervisor and a female subordinate.

34. Once again, the role of business in the creation and perpetuation of discriminatory practices in the apartheid era can be directly linked to abuses of power and sexual harassment of women. This often involved members of management harassing and exploiting vulnerable black women workers. Oppressive shopfloor conditions, the threat of dismissal and the general reign of fear that prevailed in the workplace created a climate in which it was extremely difficult to challenge such practices.

Apartheid wages

35. Apartheid was both a political and socio-economic system. While steps are being taken politically to redress past injustices, the economy and the workplace remain largely unchanged. We still have to see a real commitment by the bourgeoisie to help deal with the apartheid legacy of the mismanagement of our economy, the debt burden, the destruction of our human resources, vast unemployment and poverty, concentration of ownership in the hands of the conglomerates, marginalisation of the majority from economic activity, massive income and social inequalities, economic dislocation and severe structural problems which have left our economy deformed and could compromise future economic growth.

36. The structures of apartheid directly benefitted business growth. However, when these structures were challenged by the domestic struggle against the regime, a stronger labour movement and international sanctions, the viability of an economic system based on racial division and exploitation began to crumble. Under such circumstances, business in South Africa had an interest in the continuation of apartheid structures upon which the South Africa economy was based.

37. One of the key elements of the apartheid economy remains the wage gap - a race and gender based differential of earning power among different segments of the labour market. The wage gap is maintained directly through discriminatory wage determinations and indirectly by job reservation, denial of access to skills, education, certification, and higher paying jobs. Table 5 below shows the wage gap between white and African workers in the non-primary formal economic sectors for the period 1973 to 1992. Average wages for Africans were less than one-fifth of white wages at the beginning of this period. By the end, they had climbed modestly to slightly over one third.

38. According to an article by Duncan Innes and Michael O'Donovan in the Weekly Mail of March 11, 1988, companies reporting their yearly and half-yearly results were showing spectacular improvements in profits and turn-over, confirming the recent upswing in the economy. According to the article, a study carried out by the SA Barometer and published in its March 11 edition, showed that, of 120 companies which had reported results from the beginning of 1988, 10% reported improvements of over 200% in after tax profits. Those companies reporting their results for the year declared an average improvement of 93% in after-tax profits over the preceding year. Those companies reporting over a six-month period ending in December 1987 declared an average improvement of 79% compared to that in 1986.

39. According to the article, these spectacular increases and profits stood in stark contrast to the performance of wage and salary increases over the previous few years.

40. Between July 1985 and 1986, white private sector wages and salaries rose by 11% and black sector wages by 11.3%. Over the same period, the consumer price index rose by 16.9%.

41. Between July 1986 and July 1987, white wages and salaries rose by 13.5% and black unionised workers' wages by 14%. Over this period the consumer price index rose by 17.9%.

42. This illustrates that wages and salaries lagged behind inflation over at least two years whilst company profits were soaring well ahead of the inflation rate. It was in this context that the then state president P W Botha made his call for the private sector to exercise wage restraints. Although some private sector representatives expressed reservations about implementing his proposal, Federated Chamber of Industry President Hugo Snykers is quoted as stating that:

. "The FCI and its regional Chambers will urge members to exercise the maximum possible restraints in both salary and increases".

43. In the context of price rises and the phenomenal profile that took at the time, the authors of the article correctly made the point that it is difficult to see precisely how the FCI and its member employers intended to justify wage restraints - other than by arguing that they had to respond to the state president's call.

44. There is no published data on the extent of the wage gap in previous years. However, examining earlier data for manufacturing gives some indication of wage gaps prior to 1973.

45. Table 5 shows African wages as a percent of white wages for selected prior years. While the wage gaps for Indian and Coloured workers appear narrower than the wage gap for African workers, their wages were still substantially lower than those of their white counterparts. The wage gap shows remarkable consistency throughout this period and only begins to narrow in the 1970s. The stability of the wage gap in the 1950s and 1960s reflects the relative stability of apartheid economic structures as well as the benefits that accrued to capital as part of their return based on cheap labour, exploitation and oppression.

Table 5

African wages as a percent of white wages


Wage Gap











46. What could have caused the decrease in the wage gap? One answer can be found in the level of activity of organised labour. As workers struggled against the apartheid economic system, the size of the wage gap began to be eroded. One indication of the impact of organised labour on the wage gap can be illustrated by looking at the pattern of strikes over this period. A clear pattern emerges. When trade union activity was curtailed, employers were unchallenged and organisational and other rights denied, changes in the wage gap were much less pronounced. Some gains in narrowing the wage gap only emerge in the late 1980s, when workers were seriously challenging the might of the apartheid economy through strike activity. This shows that employers played a significant role in denying the ability of the majority of the workforce to mobilise and stake a greater claim to the output produced in apartheid South Africa, an ability which was an important development in the struggle against a discriminatory and exploitative economic system.

47. What effect did organised labour's struggle against apartheid economic structures have on business in South Africa? This can be seen in examining the operating surplus of incorporated business enterprises in South Africa. Operating surplus reflects the claim that incorporated businesses have on the total output produced in the economy and can serve as a proxy for profitability. Basically, the operating surplus is what remains after wages and salaries are subtracted from the value of goods and services sold. Operating surplus shown as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) reflects the share of output to which all incorporated businesses in South Africa could stake a claim.

48. A clear picture emerges of the relationship between the wage gap, the struggle against apartheid labour market outcomes, and the profitability of South African business. When the wage gap was relatively stable and strike activity was low, operating surplus increased. As the wage gap was narrowed through the activities of organised labour, business claims to economic output diminished. South African business therefore had an incentive to maintain the wage gap and fight against union activities in order to protect its economic interests.

49. A more formal statistical analysis bears out these conclusions. Regression analysis allows a more rigorous analysis of the impact of a set of economic factors on social outcomes. To examine the relationships between the apartheid wage gap, profitability, strikes, and employment trends, two straight-forward analyses were performed. The first looked at the impact of two economic variables - the level of growth in the economy and the apartheid wage gap - on the operating surplus. The second looked at the impact of strike activity on the ratio of the employment of white versus African workers. The results are summarised in Table 6 below with the technical statistical details contained in Annexure 1.

Table 6

Economic Outcome to Be Explained

Explanatory Variables


Wage Gap



Operating Surplus




Employment Ratio




50. In all cases the variables were statistically meaningful. The results show that while economic growth had a positive effect on business' operating surplus, a decrease in the size of the wage gap actually cut into profits. Furthermore, responses to strike activity actually changed the composition of South African employment. As the number of strikes increased in one year, white workers would make up a greater proportion of the workforce the following year. Increasing unemployment in the marginalised segments of the labour force was used to sanction workers engaged in strike activity.

51. From this brief economic analysis, several broad conclusions can be drawn with respect to business, labour and apartheid's economic structures. Apartheid capitalism maintained a racially defined wage and employment structure. The apartheid labour market outcomes, in turn, helped support the profitability of business in South Africa. The statistical analysis shows this relationship clearly - the greater the wage gap, the greater was business' claim on the output produced. The exploitation of African, Coloured, and Asian workers meant higher corporate profits. The mobilisation of workers by labour unions challenged the structure of the wage gap and threatened the profitability of business within the apartheid structures. The response was often to fight back using the institutions of the apartheid state to break the power of unions. Another response was to alter the composition of the labour force, increasing the proportion of white employment and using retrenchments and unemployment to sanction black workers.

52. The response of business under apartheid has important implications for the economic problems which South Africa faces today. Instead of training the workforce to increase productivity and the viability of economic activity in South Africa, business instead fought to maintain the wage gap to insure profitability. Instead of working to secure low levels of unemployment to boost economic activity, business used their control over employment opportunities as a response to strike activity. And, instead of building a more co-operative relationship with organised labour, business reacted with militant opposition to labour unions. The current problems of poverty-level wages, high unemployment and poor labour relations can be traced back to business responses to the struggles against the apartheid economic system.

Health and safety and compensation

. " ... a society that cannot summon up the sense to protect the lungs and the lives of its workers cannot hope to protect the lungs and lives of its other citizens, including its children... " (See footnote)

53. The disregard of occupational health and safety by many South African employers in the period from 1960 to 1994 violated the rights of hundreds of thousands of South African workers, particularly black workers, to life, health, dignity and a healthy and safe environment. Despite the entrenchment in common law and statute of the employer's duty to provide employees with healthy and safe working conditions, employers in many sectors of the economy failed to take the necessary steps to protect their employees from occupational accidents and diseases.

54. The apartheid era also saw an abdication by government of its responsibility to protect and promote the health and safety of workers by the development, implementation and enforcement of health and safety standards. This combination of state and employer neglect gave rise to a high incidence of work-related industrial diseases and accidents. The consequences of these for South African workers, their families and communities, were exacerbated by a workers' compensation system which failed to adequately compensate the victims of industrial accidents and diseases or provide rehabilitation. Legislated racial discrimination remained a feature of the compensation system until 28 February 1994.

The Kinross disaster

Profits vs safety standards

55. On 15 September 1986, 177 mineworkers were killed as a result of a polyurethane fire at the Kinross gold mine. This was the largest accident in the history of gold mining in South Africa. The accident is symptomatic of the disregard for human life of mining employers and the apartheid government. (See footnote)

56. The mine only publicised the accident at 15h00, although it had occurred at 09h00. Its initial reports stated that 13 workers had died, although the mine was aware that 177 workers had died. Shortly after the disaster, the names and personal details of white miners were released by the company. The black miners who had died were identified to the world as: "Sotho 45, Shangaan (Mozambican) 21, Pondo 20, Hlubi (Transkei) 6, Venda 1, Xhosa 29, Tswana 14, Malawi 15, Pedi 1." A third of the workers killed in the accident were National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) members yet NUM was prevented from playing any role in the memorial service held at the mine.

57. The mine consistently obstructed any attempt by the NUM to participate in the inquiry into the accident. This commenced immediately after the accident. The NUM flew in internationally rated technical experts from the UK and Sweden to inspect the accident site on its behalf. The mine refused them access to mine property. They were only allowed to enter the mine some time later as part of an "open day" in which all unions in the mining industry (including Inkatha, which had no members at the mine) were allowed to inspect the mine. Under these circumstances, the experts could not perform a scientific evaluation of the scene of the accident.

58. The post-mortems of the deceased miners were conducted in an inadequate and insensitive manner by underqualified personnel using outdated equipment and without the necessary medical facilities. When a report based on the observations of a pathologist assisting the NUM appeared in the press, the mine initially defended the manner in which the post-mortems were conducted, stating that the report contained 'blatant untruths' and was 'distasteful' but later admitted that the report was accurate. (See footnote)

59. Despite the enormity of the tragedy, the prosecution was instituted in the local regional Court and not in the Supreme Court. The mine was acquitted on charges of culpable homicide. In the union's view, this was more a result of the greater legal resources devoted by the mine to its defence by the mine than the resources devoted by the state to the prosecution. The only fine imposed as a result of the prosecution was a fine of R100,00 imposed upon the employee of the mine who had been responsible for starting the fire. (See footnote)

60. The Government Mining Engineer refused to hold an inquiry in terms of the Mines and Works Act into the accident because of the unsuccessful prosecution and only held an inquiry some two years after the accident after a threat of legal action from the NUM. The presiding inspector refused to allow the NUM to participate in the inquiry. The mine supported this decision by the presiding inspector. The inquiry into the cause of the largest accident in South African gold mining history lasted three hours.

61. The mine opposed a Supreme Court application brought by the NUM to win the right to participate in the inquiry by reviewing the decision of the Inspector. For this purpose, the mine briefed a legal team headed by two senior counsel. When the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the union, the mine applied for leave to appeal from that decision, and when that was unsuccessful, petitioned the Appellate Division for leave to appeal. This was also turned down. The union only acquired the right to participate in the inquiry into the accident more than four years after the accident had occurred. The mines' opposition to union participation in accident inquiries was repeated at numerous statutory inquiries all over the country, including an accident in 1987 at the St Helena gold mine, also owned by the Gencor Group, in which 63 workers were killed. This resistance revealed a close informal collaboration by mine managers and the inspectorate.

62. The hazards of using materials of the type that caused the fire underground in mines had been known since major fires in a UK mine in 1967 and an American mine in 1972. The Chamber of Mines had advised its members of these hazards by circulars in 1968 and 1969, yet mines continued to make extensive use of this material. Nor did the State take any steps to restrict its use in mines. At least two previous fatal fires involving the underground use of the polyurethane had occurred. In 1977 two people were killed in a fire at the Buffelsfontein gold mine. On 5 October 1983 eleven miners were killed in a fire at no. 4 shaft of the Vaal Reefs Gold Mine. Yet the mine manager at Kinross at the time of the disaster was not even aware that the material (which had been installed in 1980) was in the mine. The Kinross accident could have been prevented if either the mining industry or the State had responded in a responsible manner to the available information concerning the hazards of using materials of this type underground. This was stated in evidence to the Leon Commission by the Government Mining Engineer. The Commission (in paragraph 9.3) concluded that the accident could be attributed to the fact that "where industry had been left to self-regulate it had failed to do so in a responsible manner".

63. After the Kinross accident, the government continued with its policies of self-regulation and took no steps to restrict or prohibit the use of polyurethane underground in mines. The Chamber of Mines stated in the press that its mines had adopted steps to control the use of polyurethane. Yet on 13 October 1988, seven people were killed in a fire involving polyurethane in a refrigeration column at the Western Deep Levels (South) gold mine. In the wake of the accident, the mine admitted its continued use of polyurethane. It was only after this subsequent accident that the Government Mining Engineer prohibited the use of polyurethane underground, except in specified emergency situations.

64. Kinross was a major tragedy that attracted great national and international attention. The pattern of neglect, deceit and resistance to trade union and worker involvement in health and safety has been repeated in thousands of other accidents, both in the mining industry and in other sectors.

65. After the accident, the NUM reiterated its call for a Commission of Inquiry into the regulation of mine health and safety. This request was opposed by both the Chamber of Mines and the government. Despite several further major accidents, and the continuing toll on life and health, mining employers continued to oppose the call for a Commission of Inquiry until a decision to establish a Commission was made during a tripartite Mining Summit in 1993. This led to the appointment of the Leon Commission, which sat in 1994 and whose recommendations led to the Mine Health and Safety Act 29 of 1996, which came into effect on 7 January 1997. The opposition by employers in the mining industry to a Commission of Inquiry delayed by many years the introduction of reforms into health and safety laws in the mining industry.

66. In the years after the Kinross accident, the government applied its policies of privatisation and deregulation to mining health and safety. These proposals were reflected in the Minerals Act 50 of 1991, which weakened state control over mining health and safety. The Chamber of Mines supported these reforms to the legislation on health and safety and opposed various proposals by the NUM for changes to be made to the reforms of this law. Among the proposals that the union made that were opposed and not included in legislation were:

. The requirement that all health and safety equipment be supplied to mineworkers free of charge;

. The right of mineworkers to elect their own health and safety representatives.

67. The Leon Commission of Inquiry concluded that policies of "self-regulation" in the mining industry had failed and that these policies, together with the inspectorate's lack of enforcement capacity, contributed significantly to the poor health and safety record of the mining industry which it described as "appalling". (See footnote)

International standards

68. The conduct of employers in this period had the additional consequence of denying employees the protection of internationally accepted rights. The right to a healthy and safe workplace is deeply entrenched in international law. The obligation on governments and employers to provide "adequate protection for the life and health of workers in all professions" is recognised in the constitution of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). This principle is also expressed in a large number of Conventions of the ILO which are binding on member states who ratify those Conventions. These Conventions entrench what are generally described as the four "core" health and safety rights of workers. These are:

. The right by workers and their representative organisation to participate in the regulation and promotion of health and safety at work;

. The right of workers to appropriate training in occupational health and safety;

. The right to receive information on workplace hazards and how to avoid them, including the correct use of machinery and health and safety equipment;

. The right to refuse dangerous work. A worker who has reasonable justification to believe that circumstances in the workplace pose a serious danger to his or her health or safety is entitled to withdraw from the danger and be protected from adverse consequences. (See, for instance, most significantly, the Occupational Health and Safety Convention 155 of 1981).

69. Employers resisted workers gaining these rights in the workplace and opposed arguments by the trade union movement to have these rights entrenched in legislation. The majority of employers resisted the struggles of the trade union movement to assert its right to participate in occupational health and safety. Apartheid-era legislation sought to exclude trade unions from participating in occupational health and safety. The Machinery and Occupational Safety Act, 6 of 1983 required for the first time the establishment of workplace health and safety representatives and committees but gave employers the right to appoint the representatives and committees. The irony of the term 'management-appointed representative' was lost on most South African employers. The functions of these representatives and committees can be likened to the system of liaison and works committees introduced by the Nationalist Party government in an endeavour to "bleed the African trade unions dry". Trade unions demanded that employers appoint representatives elected by their co-workers but this demand was resisted in almost all cases by employers. The establishment by collective agreement of elected health and safety stewards during this period was extremely rare. The right to elect worker health and safety representatives and committees was only entrenched by legislation in 1994 in sectors regulated by the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993 and in 1997 in the mining industry.

The extent of accidents

70. It is extremely difficult to gauge the full extent of the cost imposed on workers and society by occupational accidents and diseases. As the Department of Labour has noted in its Five Year Plan published in 1994, a substantial proportion of occupational accidents and diseases are not reported by employers to the relevant authorities, despite a legal obligation to do so. Academic studies have revealed the extent of under-reporting of occupational accidents in urban and rural areas. (See footnote)

71. Nevertheless, it is necessary to use existing data to gauge the extent of the scale of human rights by occupational accidents. The most accurate figures for occupational accidents are found in the annual reports of the Workmen's Compensation Commissioner. These reveal the total number of fatal accidents which resulted in claims for compensation:

Table 7


Fatal Accidents

















72. These figures show that more than 60 000 workers lost their lives in occupational accidents between 1964 and 1994. Approximately 69 000 mineworkers died in accidents in the first 93 years of this century, and more than a million were seriously injured. (See footnote) The carnage can be expressed in other ways. In 1974, for example, it was estimated that 100 000 hands, 50 000 feet and 40 000 eyes were badly injured; 31 000 men and women were permanently maimed; several hundred were injured severely enough not to be able to return to work, and 2284 were killed. (See footnote)

73. Relying upon figures supplied by the mining industry and government agencies, a recent article describes the toll on mineworkers in the following terms:

. "In 1993 out of every 100 000 gold miners 113 died in accidents, 2000 suffered a reportable injury, 1100 developed active tuberculosis and of these 25 died; in 1990 about 500 were certified as having silicosis." (See footnote)

74. Much of the focus of attention on occupational health and safety in South Africa has concentrated on the mining industry. This is a result of the central role of the mining sector in our economy and the extremely high levels of disaster, death, maiming, injuries and disease caused by mining. The publication in 1995 of the damning report of the Commission of Inquiry into Safety and Health in the Mining Industry ("the Leon Commission") has further served to focus public attention on the mining sectors health and safety problems. (See footnote) This focus has at times served to obscure the poor health and safety records other sectors of the economy impose upon workers.

75. Mining is not the most hazardous sector of the economy. The risk of an employee in the fishing sector being injured is three times higher than that of a miner. The accident rate in the transport sector is significantly higher than in mining and there are many sectors in which the risk of accident is comparable to the mining industry. The following figures in respect of the disabling injury frequency rate for the years 1983 and 1984 illustrate this:

Table 8


Disabling Injury Frequency Rate













Building and construction






Glass, bricks and tiles



Iron and steel



Food, drink and tobacco



Food, drink and tobacco



Printing and paper



All industries






Agriculture and forestry



Occupational health

76. The most comprehensive overview of the approach of South African employers to the problems of protecting the health of their workers is found in the Commission of Inquiry on Occupational Health ("the Erasmus Commission") which published its report in 1975. The Commission investigated the state of the regulation of occupational health (not occupational safety) in all sectors of the economy. (There has never been a comprehensive inquiry into the state of occupational safety in sectors outside the mining industry.) The Commission, after exhaustive investigation, concluded that the approach of employers in general to the regulation of occupational health and the prevention of occupational disease left much to be desired:

. "Generally speaking, industrialists in the Republic and the Territory of South-West Africa spend very little money on and do not devote much time to or organise for the prevention of occupational diseases. This poor showing can be attributed to indifference on the part of industry, which is to be seen in the small numbers of industrial health staff employed, the failure to use protective equipment, the absence of warning signs and preventive measures, a lack of knowledge of the products handled, and scant guidance. There is a lack of standards and norms." (See footnote)

77. The Commission noted that generally conditions were better in large industries than smaller ones and that only certain sectors of the mining industry could be said to exercise fairly good control over industrial health hazards. While the mining industry may have devoted considerably greater resources to the prevention of occupational diseases than other sectors of the economy, its approach leaves much to be desired.

78. Two commentators described the Commission's conclusions as follows:

. "... the Commission's own findings frequently reveal extremely dangerous working conditions and a high increase of occupational disease. Torn between the need to exonerate industry from any ill will and the belief that the incidence of occupational disease is unnecessarily high, the concern on the part of the industry as mere neglect rather than a necessary concomitant of the economic system." (See footnote)

79. The Commission found alarmingly high levels of exposure to hazardous substances, including asbestos and lead. The continued failure to address this major occupational hazard is revealed in recent research by the Department of Community Health at UCT quantifying the extent of lead exposure in South Africa. This showed disturbingly high levels of kidney dysfunction and other health consequences among workers exposed to increased levels of lead absorption. The study revealed a need to reconsider the current regulations on the use of lead as well as the need for education on health and safety measures among lead users and for improved national surveillance. The problems identified by the study are prevalent both in the formal sector and in the informal sector (in establishments such as informal battery repair shops).

80. The number of mineworkers who received (totally inadequate) compensation for dust-related diseases in terms of the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act is one indication of the prevalence of these diseases among mineworkers and ex-mineworkers. In 1992, for instance, 7957 workers were compensated - two-thirds of these cases involving tuberculosis. These figures exclude the substantial proportion of ex-mineworkers who have received no compensation. (See footnote)

81. In other sectors of the economy, there are no reliable figures. The claims for occupational disease compensation under the Workmen's Compensation Act amount during the 1980's and early 1990's to between 100 and 130 claims annually. The only exception was in the late 1980's as a result of the brown lung (byssinosis) campaign organised among textile workers by the National Union of Textile Workers. In these years claims exceeded 600, giving some indication of the extent of under-reporting of compensation claims. (See footnote)

82. The failure by the mining industry to protect employees from the health hazards of exposure to dust in the workplace is noted by the Leon Commission of Enquiry. The enormity of the occupational health problems in the mining industry at the end of the apartheid era are fully documented in the report of the Leon Commission, particularly Chapter 4. This contains the conclusion that there was no evidence to indicate a decline in the severity or prevalence of any occupational disease in the period since 1975 (at paragraph 4.5.18) The Commission also pointed out (at para 4.6.7) that while

. "The data available on the time taken to acquire certifiable dust related disease indicates that although this has decreased steadily for white miners, it has not changed for black miners. The explanation for this is probably that white miners are now in supervisory positions and therefore less exposed to dust, whereas workers in the stopes are exposed to the same dust levels as in the past."

83. In a subsequent article, Dr Neil White, a prominent academic expert in respiratory disease who made extensive representations to the Leon Commission, makes the point that the focus of medical attention on black miners by the mining industry was on the detection and repatriation of those miners who were unfit to work, primarily those with pulmonary tuberculosis (PTB). From the turn of the century until 1985, thousands of black miners were sent home every year after having been diagnosed with PTB on the mines or by labour recruiters. In a well-documented process, repatriation of sick miners over the years contributed to the transformation of rural labour reserves from areas where PTB was unknown to endemic hot spots where the incidence of PTB is among the highest in the world.

84. Early in the century it was shown that 60% of repatriated miners with PTB died within two years. Before they died, many would infect their families and others with the disease. By the 1950s, curative treatment became available for PTB but miners continued to be sent home to probable death. This was despite PTB being a recognised occupational disease, the availability of drugs and mine hospital beds. In the early 1980s, it was shown that less than 10% of miners received the treatment they required in the rural areas to which they were repatriated. In the last five years before 1985, when the Director of the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases made changes to regulations and permitted miners to remain at work and be treated, his reports show that more than 15 000 men were repatriated for PTB alone.

85. The real costs of the long-standing transference of disease and disability from the industrial centres to the labour sending areas are not easy to gauge. Dr White refers to a survey of former miners in Botswana which found that most were unemployed and a large proportion with pneumoconiosis were unemployable. This has obvious implications for health services and social welfare costs which are borne by taxpayers through state expenditures. Loss of income from death or disability of a breadwinner also has obvious implications for families that promote a downward spiral of poverty and deprivation. (See footnote)

Management attitudes

86. The Leon Commission of Inquiry characterised the approach of the mine management to health and safety in the following terms:

. "However, the recurring management apology, when paraphrased, claims that 'the systems in place are fine and the accidents are due to human errors'. There is no moral basis for this excuse. The theoretical solutions are relatively obvious, but difficult and slow to implement in practice. Management must engineer the systems so as to minimise the opportunity for human error, and train all ranks of the workforce to act in accordance with the sound procedures in place." (See footnote)

87. This quotation identifies a "blame culture" that exists in the mining industry (as well as in other sectors of the economy), in which managers blame mistakes by individual workers for accidents rather than seeking to establish the underlying causes of accidents and thereby improving health and safety systems and avoiding their repetition. This attitude also emerged from an analysis of the safety performance of the mines owned by one of South Africa's major mining houses conducted by the firm of management consultants, Arthur D Little International Inc. This document was submitted to the Leon Commission as evidence:

. "In order for employees to be the root cause of poor safety performance, both the technical programs used to control risks and the management systems used to manage risks would have to be mature and effective. Our findings concerning the degree of maturity of the technical programs and the effectiveness of the management systems show us that employees are not the root cause of the poor performance. Unsafe employees are a reflection of a weakness in the safety management systems, particularly in the area of assigning and clearly communicating responsibility and accountability, and in the employee training programs..."

88. The focus on human error to the exclusion of systems is also revealed in a paper by two employees of a major mining house:

. "Our society springs from an authoritarian mould and as a result undue emphasis is placed on 'finding the guilty party' and liability considerations (often a reason for doing superficial internal investigations of accidents). This pre-occupation with punishment rather than prevention was reinforced by legislation." (See footnote)

89. The tendency to focus on the acts or omissions of individual employees in examining the causation of accidents is shared by the Mine Inspectorate. In a written submission to the Leon Commission Dr JP Leger concluded that "a contributing reason to the fatality and injury rates in South Africa is what may be termed an ideology of misadventure held by the mine inspectorate." After analysing a series of statistics published by the Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs up until 1983, he concludes:

. "Two features stand out. Firstly, the analysis implies that the majority of fatalities (about 90%) were unavoidable and simply 'part-of-the-job' since they were due to "danger inherent to work or misadventure". Secondly, personal responsibility in relation to accidents - where it was assigned - was to the greatest extent blamed upon the injured worker. Management, whether at a higher or lower level, was apportioned only a small proportion of the blame." (See footnote)

The compensation system

90. The mechanisms for compensating workers during the apartheid era formally discriminated against black workers. The basis of the scheme was a historical trade off in terms of which workers acquired the right to compensation from a state-run compensation fund (regardless of fault) for injuries and ill health, but lost the right to institute civil claims for damages against their employer. Employers, on the other hand, were (and remain under current law) protected against the possibility of damages claims being instituted against them in return for the contribution they made to the compensation fund. This protection of employers existed regardless of whether they were registered with the fund, paid their assessments or complied with the obligation to report occupational accidents and diseases. The approach by the Workmen's Compensation Commissioner during the apartheid era has been to adopt the view that the fund should be administered for the benefit of employers.

91. The White Paper on Social Welfare states that the limited scope and poor application of the compensation system during the apartheid years has:

. "resulted in the systematic transfer of costs from industry to the State (especially to Welfare and to a lesser extent to Health). The compensation system broke down completely in rural areas; rural families and communities bore the burden of diseases and disabilities incurred in the urban workplace which should have been compensated for by employers." (See footnote)

92. Prior to July 1977, the compensation paid to African workers and the dependants of workers killed by accident or disease under the Workmen's Compensation Act 30 of 1941 was limited to lump sum payments and no pensions were paid as was paid to other workers. The amendments introducing pensions were not retrospective and the workers who suffered this discrimination have received no recompense. It is not known how many workers fall into this category. With the single exception of the Rand Mutual Assurance Company Ltd, which pays certain benefits to mineworkers employed by mines belonging to the Chamber of Mines who suffered a 100% disability prior to 1977, no employer has to our knowledge sought to remedy this gross inequality.

93. Racial discrimination continued against mineworkers who contracted the diseases that are compensated through the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act 78 of 1973. This Act remained racially discriminatory until 28 February 1994, with black mineworkers being paid as little as one-thirteenth of the compensation paid to white mineworkers with the same condition. Some seriously ill miners received as little as R2000 in compensation in the early 1990's for a disease that rendered them permanently disabled and unemployed. Compensation in terms of this Act was (and remains) limited to the payment of a lump sum - no pensions are paid to seriously ill mineworkers in terms of this legislation.

94. The benefits which have been provided in terms of the Workmen's Compensation Act 30 of 1941 do not reflect the full cost of work-related injury and disease. Compensation for permanent disability is calculated on a tariff basis with a percentage of disability being assigned to the injury or disease. This system has remained unchanged since 1941. No account is taken of the employee's loss of earning capacity or of employment as a result of the disability and no payment is made for the pain and suffering associated with many injuries (as is the case with persons injured in motor vehicle accidents). Many workers who are permanently excluded from the workforce as a result of an occupational injury or disease receive only a single lump sum or a pension that is a small portion of the employee's former earnings. The consequences of this are most severe for manual and semi-skilled workers who may be rendered unemployable by a relatively minor permanent disability.

95. The consequences are made more severe by the fact that compensation is based on wages and the absence of any effective system of rehabilitation for permanently disabled workers. This has been commented on in the Green Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy:

. "So, even though there is some compensation for people who are disabled through accidents at work, the money which they receive is in most cases inadequate to meet their needs and does not compensate for the loss of their job or their poor job prospects for the future." (See footnote)

96. Pensions paid to permanently injured workers and their families were not adjusted at well below the rate of inflation. During the period from 1982 to 1992, pensions increased at 37% of the rate of inflation. (See footnote) Where workers contracted diseases with long latency periods, their compensation was based on their earnings when they contracted the disease which in the case of work-related cancers can be as long as 30 years.

97. The compensation of occupational diseases in terms of the Workmen's Compensation Act 30 of 1941 was totally inadequate. The Act contained a very limited schedule of compensatable diseases. During the 1970s and 1980s the number of successful claims for compensation for occupational diseases was generally between 100 and 130 annually. As the Erasmus Commission demonstrates, this is a minute proportion of the total incidence of occupational diseases. The result was that the majority of cases of occupational diseases were not compensated and therefore employers did not bear the cost. The situation was significantly improved in 1994, with the enactment of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act 130 of 1993, which has resulted in a twenty-fold increase in the number of claims for compensation for occupational diseases. However, these changes are not retrospective in effect with the result that workers who contracted the new scheduled diseases prior to 1994 will not be compensated.

98. These aspects of the compensation system identified illustrate that the costs of workplace death, injury and disease have been partly displaced from employers to employees, their families and other social welfare systems. Employers, on the other hand, have benefited through reduced compensation levies which reduce costs of production and enhance profits.

99. We conclude with the feelings of a worker whose health and safety rights had been grossly violated: "I used to be an operator at the furnace which has a high temperature. I sustained burns on the left hand side of my body. There was no safety material to protect the body. The temperatures changed often from high to low. I ultimately became sick and got pains in my stomach. I also suffered exhaustion due to the heat and my whole body swelled up. I went to several doctors. One doctor applied to the employer for me to be transferred away from the furnace to a place with a normal temperature. I was transferred. I went to Sebokeng Hospital and then to Baragwanath where I was treated for 3 weeks, and at this time I am attending Baragwanath for monthly treatment. I was advised by a private doctor to do this because the doctors at Sebokeng are not good and there are no specialists available. My kidneys are not functioning properly - they work on and off. They have given me drugs to make my kidneys work, but I am told that I will probably be put on a machine to purify my kidneys. I have been re-employed but I am doing strenuous work and the employers have reduced my wages. They want to fire me because they say I am lazy. If I pick up something heavy it affects my kidneys, and if the temperature is high, I feel weak. I was given no compensation and I paid for my own hospital treatment. At Baragwanath I had an operation, a renal biopsy. I pay R2,00 every time I go to Baragwanath and R7,00 for transport. Also, I am not paid for the day's work. I have to miss each month (to go to hospital). I earn R1,64 per hour (he thus loses R20,00 each day he goes to hospital)."

. ("A study of conditions of health and safety in the metal industry in the Vaal Triangle" - study matter, 1983, dissertation series no. 4, p1).

Apartheid benefits

Medical aid

100. From 1977-86 the number of whites covered by medical aids increased by 3%, representing coverage of 70-75% of whites by medical aid. In contrast, the number of blacks (African, Coloured, Indians) doubled (an increase of 102%, but the numbers are small and it was an increase of 508% for Africans, but only 3.6% of Africans were covered. (Vol 13,8:100-107)


101. During 1981, there were a large number of strikes over pensions linked to a government plan, with financial capital backing, to preserve pensions until people were 65. A number of workers were dismissed in this period for making the demand that they wanted their pension payouts immediately. The pressure from workers and the resultant strike action led to the shelving of the plan. Commenting on this, Lou Davis, executive director of the Building Industries Federation, had the following to say: "Ilco homes fired a 1 000 workers, bom, just like that. In fact they fired themselves, because if a man withholds his services, he breaks his contract."

102. Answering questions as to what the dispute was about, he said, "It was a spurious stupid little nonsense about they couldn't understand the pension system. All contributions are made on their behalf by employers but they want the bloody cash out."

103. In answering why workers have responded so readily to the pension issue he says: "Because they're a lot more stupid than you or me, they don't understand. They think differently from what you and I do, you should appreciate that. A man of limited intelligence cannot see reasoning behind it, and all you need is some inflammatory guy telling them all sorts of nonsense."

104. Both the structures of industrial council pension schemes and of private schemes would have weighted themselves against especially the lower skill and African workers because of the penalties coming with withdrawal. Withdrawal in this context included dismissals, as well as transferring from a closed shop union into one that was not (such as the transfer from SATU to PPWAWU).

Migrant labour

105. Even in the 1980s, it is simply untrue that all manufacturers disapproved of "extra-economic" controls over workers or supported the rights of all to live where they pleased. In the metal sector on the East Rand, many companies preferred and retained a migrant labour force, when workers with section 10 rights were available. In a poll summarised by Webster, the majority of foundry managers indicated a clear preference for 'homeland labour' rather than local labour. They felt that homeland labour was more compliant and 'reliable', and some stressed the 'loyalty' of the rural worker because they are subject to influx control.

106. As one worker remarked: "We get lower jobs than township people. In those plants where workers are gently treated we are not needed. We are only needed in those places where there is rough work."

107. A study of management attitudes by Ann Bernstein of the Urban Foundation in the mid 1980s, records a large minority (45%) who preferred the retention of all or some influx control legislation.

Racially segregated recruitment policies

108. Commenting on the LRA amendments in 1989, COSATU general secretary at the time, Jay Naidoo, said that it encouraged minority unions and organisation.

. "Its provisions are exacerbated by the increasing use of coloured and white labour as scabs during strikes. Reports from our unions are that management's are regularly threatening to replace African workers - even in non-strike situations - with coloured and white workers, saying that 'Africans are always on stay aways'."

109. There were also reports of an increasing number of companies specialising in replacing African strikers with workers from other races.

110. Reporting on a strike wave in the Eastern Cape in the early months of 1990, Desai and Auf der Heyde say that management on numerous occasions threatened that striking workers would be replaced by coloured workers. At Sappi Waste, management replaced dismissed workers with coloured workers.

111. There is also evidence of this in the late 1980s during strikes in the retail and metal sectors. (See Lewis and Dwolatsky).

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.