Mining the Past in a Pandemic: Part II – The Great Pandemic on the Rand

19 Jun 2020
19 Jun 2020

Following the end of South Africa’s hard lockdown on 1 May 2020, the mining industry has seen a steady resumption of its operations. Mines have been permitted to operate at 50 per cent capacity.[1] The industry has thus been coming back to life, although labour shortages remain a looming threat as mineworkers make their way back to the mines, due to challenges of transporting these workers across long distances when buses and other means of transport are not operating at full capacity.

However, it has not been smooth sailing as far as keeping Covid-19 under control in the mining industry is concerned. Recently, the Minerals Council South Africa (MCSA) has rebuffed claims that the mining industry has become the “epicentre” for the Covid-19 outbreak in the country. It was reported on 9 June that 679 of South Africa’s 50 000 reported cases of Covid-19 were among mineworkers. In defending the industry, the MSCA points to the strict screening procedures that have been in place since mineworkers returned following the end of South Africa’s hard lockdown.

Regardless, from a historical point of view, it should be no surprise that the mining industry is a lightning rod in the midst of a pandemic. Due to the nature of the migrant labour system and the industry’s operation, it remains inextricably intertwined with the nation’s history of disease. This was made clear in part 1 of this series, which shone a light on the smallpox outbreak in Kimberly in the period 1883-84.

While much focus of the impact of disease in the mining industry is on HIV, tuberculosis and silicosis, a more comparable episode to the recent Covid-19 pandemic is that of the Spanish Influenza of 1918-19. Regarded as the most devastating pandemic in recent history, the Spanish Influenza was caused by the H1N1 virus. Having most likely originated in Kansas in the United States of America towards the end of World War I, the virus was most likely spread through the transportation of American soldiers to the European theatre of war. Estimates suggest as much as a third of the world’s population became infected during the course of the pandemic, with a death toll of at least 50 million people.

What was unique about the Spanish Influenza, and its most frightening aspect, was its high mortality rate among healthy adults in the age bracket of 15-34. Easily spread through normal means such as coughing and sneezing, symptoms were characterised by “[l]aboured breathing, a high fever, crackling sounds from the lungs, bleeding from the nose or mouth, and a dark tingeing of the skin”.[2]

The Spanish Influenza was characterised by three waves, the first being a milder form.[3] This first wave reached South Africa in September 1918, being carried by returning soldiers who arrived in Durban.[4] The wave then reached the gold mines in the Witwatersrand that same month.[5] It resulted in a curtailment of mining operations as well as the establishment of temporary hospitals to manage the heavy caseload.[6] By 27 September 1918, the number of cases had exceeded 14 000.[7] Despite the high caseload, deaths during this initial wave were rare, and the episode was viewed as a “temporary inconvenience without serious loss” according to Reuters.[8] One workplace accident on 1 October 1918 at the East Rand Mine, however, saw 20 miners killed when the driver lifting their cage back to the surface had an attack of influenza.[9]

The second wave, however, was deadly, killing an estimated three hundred thousand people in South Africa in a six-week period over October-November 1918.[10] Described by Professor Howard Phillips as “[s]hort, sharp and savage”, the Spanish Influenza “outdid in intensity, range and lethality every other epidemic in the subcontinent before or since”.[11] Needless to say, the mining industry was hit hard. The deaths on the Witwatersrand gold fields started to number in the hundreds, and by early November an estimated 1147 African mineworkers had succumbed to the disease.[12] Nearly a third of the 190 000 strong mining workforce in gold mines were admitted to mine hospitals during this period.[13]

A serious labour shortage resulted from the combination of deaths and disability, as well as from those fleeing the gold mines to escape the Spanish Influenza.[14] By the end of the year, the workforce stood at 62 per cent below the necessary workforce.[15] In the aftermath, the mining industry sought to assuage fears over returning to the mines, claiming that mineworkers are likely better off at the mines.[16] While there was a steady return of workers, this likely had more to do with shortages of food in labour-sending areas than the advertising of the mining industry.[17]

Escape from the gold mines was not truly an escape from the Spanish Influenza, however, now carried by those returning home.[18] Death was a constant companion for those on the road home.[19] And those dependent family members who remained after losing a breadwinner who worked on the mines found themselves left destitute.[20]

Perhaps the most vital lesson to learn from that of the Spanish Influenza is that it is essential for the mining industry to avoid complacency. Fears of a second wave of Covid-19 are widespread. It is thus essential that the mining industry remains vigilant, not only for the health of its immediate employees, but also those communities which depend on it, whether they be local or distant sources of labour. It is hoped that the industry will continue to operate transparently and in good faith during these challenging times, and that effective measures continue to be taken and intensified to counter the growing caseload in the coming months.

Written by Richard Cramer.

This work was carried out under the COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund supported under the auspices of the Science Granting Councils Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa (SGCI) and administered by South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF) in collaboration with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), the Fonds de Recherche du Québec (FRQ), the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID), United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Newton Fund, and the SGCI participating councils across 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.


[1] GN 480 in GG 43258 of 29-04-2020.

[2] H Phillips Plague, Pox and Panedmics (2012) 75.

[3] Phillips Plague 68.

[4] Phillips Plague 69.

[5] Phillips Plague 69; H Phillips ‘Black October’: The Influence of the Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918 on South Africa PhD thesis UCT (1984) 10.

[6] Phillips ‘Black October’ 10.

[7] Phillips ‘Black October’ 10.

[8] Phillips ‘Black October’ 11.

[9] Phillips ‘Black October’ 12.

[10] Phillips Plague 68.

[11] Phillips Plague 68.

[12] Phillips ‘Black October’ 12-13.

[13] Phillips ‘Black October’ 12-13.

[14] Phillips ‘Black October’ 13.

[15] Phillips ‘Black October’ 14.

[16] Phillips ‘Black October’ 14-15.

[17] Phillips ‘Black October’ 15.

[18] Phillips ‘Black October’ 19-20.

[19] Phillips ‘Black October’ 19-20.

[20] Phillips ‘Black October’ 179.