A worker at a mine that has recently experienced a spate of fatal accidents told investigators that he knew the reason why there were so many accidents at this mine, and he also said that they would continue unless certain measures were taken. According to him, the “ancestors” were angry because they were not consulted before the mine decided to allow women to work underground. Until they were appeased by a “cleansing ceremony”, the accidents would continue.
Now, to western ears, this story sounds ridiculous at first but I think there may be more to this. If this is a pervasive belief among the workers, how is it affecting their behavior underground? If they think that no matter what they do, the ancestors are going to cause accidents anyway, it may lead to unsafe behavior.
Another key belief especially under some South African tribes is that a spirit cannot rest if a person died in a confined space such as in prison or underground. A ceremony was required to lead this spirit home to rest.
Interestingly, the person teling us the story related it to a phenomenon that started appearing next to South African roads a few years ago. Whereever there’s been a fatal accident, family and friends mark the spot with a cross and flowers – often keeping fresh flowers there for many months after the accident. His interpretation of this is that people tend to want to memorialise the spot where the spirit and body parted, not just the grave site. I have no idea whether or not these roadside memorials have had any impact on the road accident rates, but I do know that they make me feel uncomfortable and little more aware of the inherent dangers on SA roads when I go past them.
It made me wonder if there is a potential opportunity for mines to investigate the impact of these beliefs and superstitions on safety behavior. Maybe there is a way to create rituals based on these beliefs that could cause people to be more “safety aware” when they are working underground?