1960s >> 1960 >> no-672-august-1960

News from Africa: The Coalbrook Enquiry

Under capitalism, mining, like all other industries is run strictly with a view to making a profit. Running costs are always kept as low as possible, and human considerations take second place to the prime motive of making a profit. Now, nearly six months afterwards, the report of the enquiry into the disaster at the Coalbrook mine in South Africa on 21st January, where 430 Africans and five Europeans were entombed, has said that the underground subsidence was due to “ negligence and wrongful acts and omissions ” by certain mine officials.
Mr. W. T. Dalling, Chief Inspector of Mines at Witbank, had many things to say at the enquiry which were not at all popular with the mine’s management or its Counsel. He said that the fatal accident rate at Coalbrook North mine was 12 times as high as that in his own district, Witbank. Miners in South Africa did not carry any form of self-rescue gear; miners had survived falls in similar circumstances in the U.S. and Europe. He said his first reaction to the mine disaster was a picture of a mine that had collapsed due to weak supports. The method of mining in Coalbrook was that of cutting the coal and leaving pillars as supports.
Mr. Corbett, who assisted Mr. Dalling in investigations at the mine, said that after his observations, he thought the mine plans were inaccurate. He also said that in the northern area of the mine, there were “active pillars” which were “splitting and making low noises,” and that in most areas he visited, wasting (coal falling from pillars) had taken place. Evidence was given at the enquiry that on December 28th a fall had taken place in the mine, but the Assistant Manager did not consider it to be a major one, as it had been confined to one section of the mine, and the fall had not been reported. When asked if he thought the reason for the January collapse was that the coal pillars were called upon to carry more than their strength allowed, the Assistant Manager said he did not know. This was one of the men in whose hands were the lives of hundreds of other men. Mr. Dalling said that requirements and recommendations that were put to the mine management were ignored. He said that the lowest seam at the Coalbrook mine was mined in a very impractical and hazardous way and had been dangerously undermined. He said that pillar mining should only be used in upper areas of a mine, otherwise the pillars would take on too much strain and burst
Sir Andrew Bryan, world authority on mining and Chairman of the International Conference at Geneva in 1949 which drew up a model code of safety for mines, and who is now adviser to the British National Coal Board, read to the enquiry a lengthy and detailed report which he had compiled. He said there was no evidence that the mine collapsed due to general weighting. It appeared instead that an unusual occurrence, such as a rock-burst or bump had caused the collapse. Counsel for some of the African widows said Sir Andrew was not an independent witness as he claimed, but that his evidence was one-sided. He spoke no Afrikaans and appeared to have made no effort to have the evidence of the Afrikaans witnesses translated. The majority of these Afrikaans speaking witnesses were people who, worked underground and would have had a better knowledge of conditions. Sir Andrew replied that most of the evidence had been in English and had been sufficient to give him a general insight into matters before he compiled his report.
The Manager of the Clydesdale Collieries told the enquiry that the Coalbrook mine was so “popular” with African workers that the mine “had more boys than it knew what to do with.” There was a good recruiting system at the mine and the Africans, mostly from Basutoland and the east coast, “just kept coming.” This statement seems to be the crux of the matter. South Africa has an abundant supply of cheap labour in the Africans, and in order to try to raise their living standards, they go to the mines from the reserves. It is easier for them to go there than try to get to the towns to work because of the Pass Laws.
“The only interests of mine managements appeared to be output and cost,” said Mr. Dalling at the enquiry. This underlines our assertion that under capitalism, profit must be made at all costs—even human costs. Even under capitalism, where everything is measured in terms of how much it costs to produce, methods of obtaining power and fuel, other than coal-mining, have been devised. When we are able to make the best uses of science and new methods without the restrictions of cost, as we will under Socialism, men won’t be called upon to risk their lives in the bowels of the earth for a meagre living, which is the lot of most miners today
Phyllis Hart

The evidence quoted above is from the Johannesburg Star of varying dates during the last four months.

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