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Asbestos blues

by Linda Waldman

McCULLOCH, JOCK. Asbestos blues: labour, capital, physicians and the state in South Africa. xx, 223 pp., map, illus., bibliogr. Oxford: James Currey; Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2002. [pounds sterling]40.00 (cloth), [pounds sterling]12.95 (paper)

In Asbestos blues, Jock McCulloch has produced the first published account of asbestos-mining in South Africa since Hall's geological survey of Asbestos in the Union of South Africa in 1930. Asbestos blues is a political economy analysis of the roles played by mining companies, the state, and medical experts in understanding and mining asbestos. It is based primarily on archival research and complemented by interviews and life histories.

Asbestos-related diseases became an international concern in the 1930s: British asbestos companies mining in South Africa had noticed their first deaths; manufacturers shared information across geographical and political boundaries; and prominent medical journals reviewed current research. None the less, McCulloch shows that without environmental lobbies and consumer groups to petition for people's rights, governments took little interest in occupational health. Most mining companies downplayed medical evidence of disease, emphasized factory safety and new technologies of dust control, while simultaneously disguising employees' loss of health. Asbestos -- marketed as the product of modernization and development -- was incorporated into thousands of household products. So many people had been exposed to asbestos in so many different forms that contemplating the removal of asbestos (after the dangers of mesothelioma became widespread) became a 'problem of the imagination'.

During wartime, argues McCulloch, an aura of mystique surrounded asbestos. Asbestos companies were granted reprieves from state legislation because of their products' strategic value. Mining and manufacturing companies had direct communications with the South African government and with senior personnel in the Department of Mines. Government concessions and leniency during wartime set a precedent that the industry subsequently exploited to its advantage. Building on ideas of difference, asbestos companies described the extraction process as 'not strictly mining', thus evading the limited legislation effective on other South African mines (despite opposition from the Departments of Native Affairs and Health). This, coupled with a simultaneous process of control over medical research conducted in South Africa, enabled mining companies to ignore the dangers of asbestos and to oversee the enormously profitable extraction of the mineral. None the less, asbestos-mining provided workers with some autonomy in a coun try where apartheid increasingly undermined black and coloured workers' independence, enabling them to determine their hours of employment and place of residence (while the mining companies benefited by not having to provide workers' housing). It also enabled workers to keep their families together, offering them a 'degree of freedom unthinkable on other mines'. It appears, however, that McCulloch assumes a nuclear family form, which is not always appropriate. Ethnographic evidence from the Northern Cape suggests, for example, that both married and unmarried male asbestos workers were unable to fulfil their family obligations to their parents households.

Mining profits, as McCulloch's detailed analysis of working conditions, living conditions, and women migrants makes clear, relied on the hidden labour of women and juveniles who undertook the most dangerous and least-liked jobs on the mines and in the mills. Women workers were paid as part of their husbands' wages, they received no medical attention and were not reported to the Department of Mining as employees. This analysis provides, however, only a partial explanation. The dynamics of local politics are not sufficiently explored in McCulloch's analysis. Household wages and dependent wives (who cobbed asbestos but did not receive independent wages) may have sustained married life in the Northern Cape, but mines in the former eastern Transvaal made extensive use of foreign migrant labour. Unfortunately, McCulloch does not explore the relations between local women employed on the mines and migrant men. Neither does he examine how unemployed men related to women employed on the mines. Furthermore, he identifie s women only by their gender. Were they wives, unmarried young women enjoying a period of adolescence, destitute women, or women rebelling against other forms of patriarchal control? Despite McCulloch's claim that asbestos-mining allowed workers to maintain some semblance of family life, asbestos mines also presented the possibility of escape from the constraints of family life and its associated demands. Here, his writing suffers from a lack of integration with other South African studies on family life, migration, gender, and status.

McCulloch has brought together a series of processes and actions by a wide range of actors across a class and racial spectrum and extending beyond national and political boundaries, to produce a highly readable, professional account of how the political and power relationships shaped asbestos-mining in South Africa.