WELKOM, South Africa — As the traveler comes up over a rise, through the blasting heat of the mid-African veldt, Welkom appears. It is hot, and a dry wind is blowing.
Welcome to Welkom, one of the most important mining centers in Africa. From this region come the world's largest supplies of gold, diamonds, uranium and chromium. These treasures help make South Africa one of the world's richest nations. Gold alone accounts for 42% of South Africa's export income and makes up 10% of the country's gross national product.
There is something else precious at these mines. Some of South Africa's best athletes work here. The mines and their athletic teams are a mother lode of talent. The mines in South Africa operate, athletically, in much the same way the NCAA does in the United States. Since there is no college-level sports competition here, there is something of a void. The mines fill it.
The mines employ mostly black migrant workers who live in barracks-type housing at the mine sites. They generally get one weekend off a month to visit their families. Among them are athletes who have recruited for highly competitive inter-mine competition in several sports on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Klassie Geldenhuys is the director of long-distance running at the President Brand mine. He has been coaching mine athletes for 20 years and his teams have dominated for 15 of those years. He says his company, Anglo-American Mines, does not recruit employees just to be athletes.
"Some mining houses do recruit just sportsmen," he said. "Then you have a problem. What happens when a guy gets old and cannot play soccer or run? They don't have their jobs."
There are 20,000 black workers at the President Brand mine, and about 10,000 compete in sports.
In the Orange Free State, the province in which most of the mines are concentrated, there are about 100,000 workers and it is estimated that about 30% compete in organized sports.
The President Steyn mine has 47 soccer clubs, and each club has its own soccer field. Such extravagance is not unusual. In fact, many of South Africa's state-of-the-art sports facilities are at the mines. Runners compete on modern synthetic tracks, and cyclists race in sleek velodromes. Oppenheimer Stadium at Vaal Reef mine has perhaps the best track and soccer facility in the country.
The mines pay to fully outfit the teams and pay for the travel. Athletes keep whatever prize money they win. And despite the mines' claims that they don't recruit, it is clear that the prized athletes don't have the toughest jobs.
Said one official: "The top sportsmen, we are going to get them a good job. We can't get around that. If we don't look after them, they go to another mine. They are good advert for the company. We need to keep this on the surface. We need to be able to get them when we want."
Jimmy du Preez, the sports manager for the Free Gold group, which manages five mines in Welkom, supervises 12 sports and numerous recreational and social activities. He said the mine's philosophy is to keep the miners busy and from being lonely.
"We feel a happier, fitter employee can work harder and is more loyal," he said.
Another function of athletes at the mines is to recruit for the company and help the mine's image with the community. Du Preez estimates that 75% of all public sports activities in the gold field areas are sponsored by the mines.
The athletes in the system have mixed feelings about the mines. Their jobs are usually clerical, so they have time to train. They are fully supported by the mine teams and have excellent facilities. The system is comparable to the army. If you want to let others make decisions for you, great. If you are independent, though, it's difficult.
David Tshabalala is the South African 800-meter champion. He is a clerk at the President Steyn mine. He likes the system.
"I can run here," he said. "We follow what the coach says. The mine just tells me where to run and I go."
Xolile Yawa is South Africa's best distance runner and holds the South African record at 10,000 meters. He says he was definitely recruited as an athlete and has an above-ground job because the mine values his running services. He rents his house from the mine for only five rand (about $2) a month.
"The facilities are good here, but we should have these facilities in the townships, so athletes don't have to come to the mines to be able to run," he said. "Then we can progress.
"Kids there never see a track like this. When I was a kid, we didn't know what 100 meters was. We would just put a stone here and there and run between the stones. Here, we can learn more. But the mine definitely uses us."