Mining the Past in a Pandemic: Part III – The Lingering Epidemic

06 Nov 2020
06 Nov 2020

At present, South Africa is under alert level 1 of its Covid-19 lockdown, providing much socio-economic relief for the average South Africans and allowing more scope for the resumption of economic and business activities. Nevertheless, the economic outlook following the prolonged period of the earlier stricter alert levels of lockdown is not rosy, with the country facing an ever-growing unemployment and poverty crises. The mining industry, however, given its critical importance to the country’s economy, had been given the greenlight to operate at full capacity at alert level 3 of the lockdown. As such, it has emerged from the lockdown period in better shape than most industries, and has also benefitted from favourable prices of metals in the global markets.

Up to this point, this series of articles has covered two diseases whose existence is firmly in the past, namely smallpox and the deadly strain of H1N1 influenza referred to as the Spanish Flu. The aim of these articles is to demonstrate the inextricable link between the histories of disease outbreaks and mining in South Africa, from the mining industry’s infancy in the late 1800s into the 1900s. However, since the 1980s, the mining industry in South Africa has been beset by a new invisible enemy, one that cannot simply be expected to burn itself out in a year or two following an outbreak. This invisible enemy is HIV/AIDS.

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) attacks the host body’s immune system, and can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) if not treated adequately. It is most commonly spread through unprotected sexual intercourse or the sharing of previously used needles or syringes. Other methods of infection are possible, such as mother to child infection during pregnancy or during birth, or through receiving a contaminated blood transfusion. Infection with HIV is incurable. While being an almost certain death sentence in the years following its initial discovery, people with HIV can now live relatively normal lives with the proper treatment. In 2018, there were around 7 700 000 people living with HIV in South Africa, with 71 000 deaths from AIDS-related illness. This represented a 50 percent reduction in deaths from 2010.

The South African mining industry, characterised by exploitative system of migrant labour which saw men separated from their families for extended periods, has given rise to circumstances ideal for exacerbating the spread of disease (such as HIV) throughout the country.[1] As Marks explains, “the constant movement of large numbers of sexually active men from town to countryside and back, bearing their diseases with them, [resulted] in the impoverishment of the countryside and the marginalisation of women and children”.[2] The migrant labour system was in fact one of the entry points for the virus into South Africa.[3] Once HIV had arrived in the country, it found the ideal circumstances to spread, in a country characterised by labour migration and large-scale population movements and relocations in search of job opportunities, as people struggled to survive in dire socio-economic circumstances.[4] Single-sex hostels and transactional sex (in a society characterised by widely unequal gender relations) further contributed to the swift spread of HIV among mineworkers and the communities to which they returned.[5]

Inevitably, from its origins in the mining industry, HIV exploded across South Africa. Unfortunately, the response was slow on the part of the private sector.[6] The mining industry could not afford to be as tardy in its response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic as the rest of the private sector in South Africa.[7] The rate of HIV infection among its employees reached 10 per cent in 1992, and climbed to a staggering 30 per cent in 2000.[8] While the mining industry’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic can be praised for its effectiveness since the ARV drugs were affordable, it is an approach which appears to be largely motivated by what would maximise mining companies’ profits in the circumstances.[9] It simply made financial sense for companies to adopt the more proactive approach that they did in respect of HIV/AIDS.[10]

Covid-19’s origins in South Africa are markedly different from that of HIV/AIDS, not having arrived and initially spread through groups which may be regarded as marginal (and for whose health the authorities of the day had little regard). Instead, the first reported cases stemmed from returning holidaymakers. Nevertheless, the inevitable consequences of the disease wreaked havoc on the lives of the most vulnerable. And, as noted in the first article in this series, mineworkers are among that segment of the population who are vulnerable due to pre-existing conditions.[11] There are lessons to be learnt from the manner in which the industry handled the HIV epidemic, both good and bad, from its early years until the advent of affordable ARV medication.

Nevertheless, despite well-founded fears, the mining industry has fared relatively well during South Africa’s first wave of Covid-19. As of 3 September 2020, 47121 tests had come back with 15149 positive results. Of these positive results, 97 per cent have recovered, while there have been 161 recorded deaths.

While the impact of and response to Covid-19 in the mining industry is heartening, it is hoped that complacency does not set in, especially ahead of a predicted second wave. It is vital that the industry remain vigilant, and that its response not simply be motivated by what is best for its members’ bottom lines.  

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] S Marks “An Epidemic Waiting to Happen? The Spread of HIV/AIDS in South Africa in Social and Historical Perspective” (2002) 61 African Studies 13; D Stuckler, S Steele, M Lurie & S Basu “Introduction: ‘Dying for Gold’: The Effects of Mineral Mining on HIV, Tuberculosis, Silicosis, and Occupational Diseases in South Africa” (2013) 43 International Journal of Health Services 639.

[2] Marks (2002) African Studies 18.

[3] Marks (2002) African Studies 17.

[4] Marks (2002) African Studies 17.

[5] Marks (2002) African Studies 17.

[6] H Phillips Plague, Pox and Pandemics (2012) 133; D Dickinson “Corporate South Africa’s Response to HIV/AIDS: Why so Slow?” (2004) 30 Journal of Southern African Studies 627.

[7] Phillips Plague 133.

[8] Phillips Plague 133

[9] Phillips Plague 134-135.

[10] Phillips Plague 134-135.

[11] Stuckler et al (2013) International Journal of Health Services 639.