Lessons learnt from taking sides as a sociologist in unjust times

Gold miners appear after being trapped underground at a mine in Carltonville, west of Johannesburg. Managing their safety has been a major issue as South Africa has among the deepest and most dangerous mines. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

What role should sociologists play in situations of large-scale suffering and exploitation. Should they take sides and, if they do, on what grounds can such choices be justified?

I’m one with Alvin Gouldner in saying that sociologists take sides on the basis of certain value commitments. But when sociologists go beyond the relative comfort of the classroom and engage with organisations outside the university they dirty their hands, as philosopher Jean Paul Satre famously said.

This is the dilemma that lies at the heart of public sociology: how to square the circle between practical engagement with outside organisations, and a commitment by the sociologist to scholarship.

Two examples of public sociology undertaken in the 1980s during the apartheid period in South Africa come to mind. The interventions were undertaken in consultation with the newly formed National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a union of black mineworkers struggling for recognition from deeply hostile employers and a repressive state.

An investigation into underground safety on the gold mines represented the promise of public sociology. The research strengthened the union and prompted important policy reform.

But the second intervention, a study of the potential impact of migrant labour on the spread of HIV/AIDS, highlighted the pitfalls of public sociology. It led to uncomfortable findings and tension between the researchers and the NUM.

Historical background

In January 1973 more than 100,000 workers unexpectedly went out on strike in the coastal city of Durban, shattering a decade of industrial acquiescence. The strikes triggered a process of widening worker unrest and rapid union growth among black workers.

To understand and contribute to the development of this emerging social movement, a new generation of sociologists took sides and identified with the unorganised black workers. One of the outcomes was the establishment of a research institute attached to the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, the Sociology of Work Programme (SWOP).

SWOP decided to partner with the recently formed NUM and focus research on the critical issue of health and safety in South Africa’s deep-level gold mines.

Safety on gold mines

The high accident rate on the gold mines is linked to the exceptional depths at which extraction of gold takes place in South Africa. In 1983, the year we began our research, 371 miners were killed by rockfalls. Between 1900 and 1985, 66,000 miners died underground and more than a million were seriously injured.

In September 1983 a dispute occurred at West Driefontein mine when workers refused to work under dangerous conditions and were dismissed. This triggered a request to SWOP to undertake research on safer underground mining.

The report – “Towards Safer Underground Gold Mining: An Investigation” – commissioned by the NUM, was completed by Dr Jean Leger in 1985. It is available in hard copy from SWOP. There were a number of crucial findings that demonstrated that black workers’ lives were being put at risk in white supervisors’ search for bonuses.

When both management and workers were invited to the policy dialogue on the report’s findings they took the event extremely seriously. The atmosphere was electric. It was the first time both sides had met each other face to face.

Management was visibly angry with the findings and felt its managerial prerogative was being unfairly challenged by a biased research report. The union was delighted with the event. It had forced management to engage publicly on a central issue in its recruitment campaign.

A campaign was launched around the slogan: “The right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions”. It was a great success. The union expanded rapidly and was at the time described as the largest in the country.

The research contributed in post-apartheid South Africa to an amendment to the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1996, which allows for the right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions.

Tackling HIV and AIDS

The second intervention was on HIV and AIDS. A key feature of mining in South Africa is the system of migrant labour for black workers. Men come from all over southern African to work on a contract.

At the time most were housed in single-sex hostels. A system of casual sex and sex work developed in the townships and shack dwellings around the mines.

In the mid-1980s in South Africa, once one had AIDS, death was inevitable. There were only 100 cases of AIDS in the country. But we saw a potential danger as HIV, transmitted mainly through unsafe sex, could spread rapidly in the mining industry and beyond, to the rural villages where miners came from. We decided to embark on research in a gold mine in the city of Welkom in the Free State Province, at that time the centre of the gold mining industry.

Our research team interviewed women who operated on the outskirts of the mine and the men who frequented them. The local branch of the NUM had offered help but when our research team arrived, no-one was keen to arrange interviews. The women who lived around the mines were more cooperative.

When officials at the head office of the NUM saw the first draft of the report they were deeply disturbed. It suggested that the system of migrant labour had created a market for the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS as the miners practised unprotected sex with multiple partners.

The report predicted an AIDs pandemic in South Africa and the region. It recommended that the NUM introduce a systematic educational programme on safe sex, provide its members with condoms, and campaign for the abolition of the migrant labour system so men could live with their partners and their families.

When the then NUM general secretary, Cyril Ramaphosa, first saw the report he was outraged. He demanded that we not publish it. He accused the researchers and SWOP of racism as the report, he said, was pathologising the sexuality of black men. We insisted on grounds of academic freedom that the research be published. Today Ramaphosa is deputy president of South Africa and chairs the South African National AIDS Council, which drives the fight against HIV/AIDS in the country.

Careful negotiations took place between the NUM and SWOP over the presentation and publication of the research. We finally reached a compromise: we would moderate the language of the report and the findings would be published in an academic journal abroad but not in South Africa.

Pitfalls and opportunities

Reflecting on these two case studies, it is clear that the underground safety study was more successful both in terms of its impact on policy and in empowering mineworkers to challenge despotic control in the workplace.

The HIV/AIDS study, on the other hand, was conceived by Oxfam Canada and was not commissioned by the NUM. It became a source of conflict between the researchers and the NUM because it touched on a deeply sensitive issue within the black community.

We were not sufficiently sensitive to this at the time. The controversial nature of race and sexuality in a colonial context became clearer when, a decade later, President Thabo Mbeki articulated it as part of his argument that there was no relationship between HIV and AIDS.

Gouldner emphasised public sociology’s ability to discover new information often hidden from mainstream sociology.

A feelingful commitment to the underdog’s plight enables us to do a better job as sociologists.

It also, Gouldner continued, made the suffering of the underdog “naked and visible” to the public.

But there are also many pitfalls in the practice of public sociology. It can lead to a lack of analytical distance from the research subjects. The greatest pitfall is the threat to the autonomy of the academic. But in taking sides and insisting on public engagement I believe we were being faithful to the values that underlie the sociological vocation.

This is a shortened, edited version of a chapter to be published in an upcoming volume on public sociology.