AN important aspect has been overlooked among the chaos that resulted from the killing of 34 miners at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine: the inhuman underground working conditions of miners and especially of rock drillers (the current striking miners).
Platinum group metals (PGMs) comprising platinum, palladium and rhodium are mined mainly from a narrow band of dark rock known as the Merensky Reef. This reef is on average 90cm thick and dips underground at an angle of 30 to 50 degrees.
To mine the platinum rich rock economically stope heights range from 1 to 1.2m. For most of their shift rock drillers lie on their sides operating a heavy rock drill jackhammer in uncomfortably hot and cramped conditions.
Temperatures underground average more than 40°C even with air-conditioning. The geothermal gradient (heat increase with depth) is higher in the Bushveld mines than elsewhere in South Africa.
These underground miners earn R4000 a month for their efforts.
Lonmin, third largest producer of PGMs after Anglo American and Impala, is a blue chip company listed on the London and Johannesburg stock exchanges, and derives most of its earnings from its South African platinum operations.
It is also a rand-hedge company and unlike gold (which only has monetary and jewellery value), PGMs are industrial minerals with the bulk of the demand coming from the manufacture of catalytic converters for internal combustion engines.
Demand for platinum will not decrease (as is possible in the case of gold, silver and diamonds) since motor cars are likely to be around for a long time to come and cleaner emissions will be an imperative.
All of us who work in spacious air-conditioned offices, factories and out in the open should spare a thought for these hard- done-by, underpaid miners and show solidarity for their cause but in a peaceful way.
Nick Stavrakis, Beacon Bay, East London