Mining rethink needed
There is a song about a train that comes from Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique and all the hinterlands of southern and central Africa.
This is the coal train that South Africa's greatest musical export, Hugh Masekela, sang about. It carried "young and old African men who are conscripted" to work on South African mines.
Stimela - The Coal Train - is not only one of the jazz maestro's greatest compositions, it was one of the greatest unofficial anthems of the anti-apartheid struggle.
When many here and abroad sang along to the lyrics of the song, they yearned for the day when migrant workers would not have to work long hours "deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth" for "almost no pay".
The demise of apartheid, they believed, meant that those who dig and drill "that mighty evasive stone" would no longer "curse" the sound of the choo-choo train that brought them to the mines.
In a free South Africa, most hoped, mineworkers would not have to live in the "stinking, funky, filthy, flea-ridden barracks and hostels" that Masekela described in the song.
It has been 18 years since political freedom and yes, migrant mineworkers no longer "curse" the coal train - long extinct and replaced by faster and yet more expensive modes of transport.
But many of the mineworkers still "live like dogs", as Masekela put it, in the squatter camps that surround some of Africa's richest mines.
They risk their lives every day going underground in a country in which more than 100 workers die each year in the mines.
In return, many of them earn meagre wages while their bosses walk away with millions every year.
The majority of communities living in these resource-rich areas derive hardly any benefit from the profits made.
The Chamber of Mines says companies contribute funds to help ameliorate the living conditions of their employees.
It points out that Lonmin, the platinum mining giant that owns the troubled Marikana mine, has contributed about R500-million to this end.
But, judging by the growing anger in many communities, especially in Limpopo and North West, this assistance is either insufficient or never reaches its intended beneficiaries.
It is within this context that we should understand the turbulence that is spreading through the mining sector - threatening to bring the whole economy to its knees.
Though former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and his "economic freedom fighters" should shoulder the blame for jeopardising jobs and an entire economic sector through their populist and self-serving statements and actions, they would not find such fertile ground to exploit if living conditions for both workers and mining communities were not so bad.
There is also a lot of merit in the criticism that has been levelled at the country's biggest trade union, Cosatu's main affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers.
That the majority of workers who have embarked on illegal strikes at Marikana and a number of other mines in recent weeks are card-carrying members of the NUM betrays a major organisational weakness in the union.
But to end the instability and find a lasting solution to the problems confronting the sector, mining companies should have a serious re-think about how they engage with society at large, and with mining communities in particular.
For far too long many of our mining companies have behaved as if it was business as usual.
They believed that, by giving black empowerment shares here and there, mostly to politically connected individuals and organisations, they could buy themselves some credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the poor.
Even with this very narrow approach to empowerment, many of the firms stand accused of employing every trick in the book to avoid meeting the transformation targets set out in the mining charter.
Instead of the Chamber of Mines complaining about this country being "very hard on employers", it should be doing some soul-searching about the causes of this hardening of attitudes.
The rising global tide of resource nationalism, coupled with the populism that is increasingly employed by the likes of Malema as they try to intensify the internal ANC conflict, are serious threats to the future of the industry.
But unless the industry begins to take measures to ensure that its employees are better paid, and that the communities within which it operates are uplifted from poverty, there would not just be the "cursing" Masekela spoke of.
There will be more Marikanas.