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South African Gold Industry Enters Final Phase of Slow Death

  • Most of nation’s gold mines are unprofitable: Minerals Council
  • Sibanye, Gold Fields face strikes over wages and job cuts
James Motlatse, center, president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Cyril Ramaphosa, right, general secretary of NUM join hands in singing the national anthem with mineworkers after the NUM executive had met in Aug. 1987.

James Motlatse, center, president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Cyril Ramaphosa, right, general secretary of NUM join hands in singing the national anthem with mineworkers after the NUM executive had met in Aug. 1987.

Photographer: Samson/AFP via Getty images

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Back in 1987, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa -- then a 34-year-old labor union leader -- led 300,000 black miners in a strike that symbolized resistance to the apartheid regime. Now, striking gold workers face a less politically charged battle, but one they can’t win.

The nation’s 130-year-old gold industry -- which has produced half the bullion ever mined on earth -- is locked in the final stages of a decades-long death spiral. Most of South Africa’s gold mines are unprofitable at current prices.