Malefetsane Mare was an 18-year-old farm boy when he ventured down into the earth to dig out gold ore.

On his first day working in the dark, alien world, he got lost in the labyrinthine tunnels and panicked.Conjuring images from the only life he knew in the mountains of his native Lesotho, he mistook water and electricity lines for snakes. He fled deeper and deeper, until he met a miner drilling at the rock face.

"I thought it was the head of the snake I had been trying to avoid," Mare recalls, laughing 28 years later at "the snake that ate my life."

Now a union shop steward at the Western Deep Levels mine southwest of Johannesburg, Mare is one of the millions of black men who for more than a century have fueled an industry at the heart of South Africa's economy and its troubled racial history.

The wealth they extract from the deepest mines in the world account for 25 percent of South Africa's foreign currency earnings, allowing white magnates to build shiny skyscrapers and lavish mansions.

But for the black miners there was only dirty, backbreaking work, modest pay and the ever-present risk of an early death.

That may be changing now that South Africa has a black-led government sympathetic to the mostly black National Union of Mineworkers. The union's list of demands, in preparation for contract negotiations later this year, has been titled: "Addressing the legacy of apartheid."

"Liberation has been achieved. Now people want to see fundamental changes in the work place," said Gwede Mantashe, the union's assistant general secretary.

Mine owners say they are willing to talk, but both sides predict change will be slow.

The union wants affirmative action programs to move blacks into higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs once reserved for whites. It is demanding housing for blacks who under apartheid were barred from living in white towns near the mines. It also wants improved safety.

Mare has been burned in explosions and trapped by rock falls. Thick scars on his chest come from his most frightening accident - four years ago, ropes used to hoist ore to the surface wrapped around him, twisting tight enough to break two ribs and choke him unconscious.

"If I were 18 again and knowing what has taken place, I would never have come to the mines," Mare said. "I would rather have been a farmer taking care of the cows."

Last year, 358 gold miners died in earth tremors, rock falls, explosions and other accidents, and more than 6,000 were injured, according to the Chamber of Mines, a cooperative of major South African mine owners.

Nearly 400,000 workers, many of them migrants from neighboring countries, work above and below the ground in mines like Mare's Western Deep Levels.

They seek a ribbon of gold-bearing ore, no wider than two hands splayed against the rock wall, running more than 1.2 miles beneath the surface. At that depth, the heat saps the body and the pressure can burst rock, a phenomenon that kills several workers every year.

Mare's resigned attitude seems made for a life that has changed little over the decades. Known as "Tsotsi," township slang for "gangster," he says he was a brawler in his younger years.

The workers' dormitories where he has lived for nearly three decades are a prescription for violence. Mare can almost touch the opposite walls when he stretches out his arms in the room he shares with four other workers. Lower-ranking workers live 18 to a room.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

S. Africa's cash cow is a golden one

Some facts about gold mining, South Africa's most significant industry.

HISTORY: Gold discovered in 1875 in Barberton region of eastern Transvaal. Major field, in Witwatersrand region outside Johannesburg, was found in 1886.

PRODUCTION: In 1993, South Africa produced 617 tons of gold, one-third of world output. Employs 400,000 people. Accounts for 25 percent of foreign currency earnings.

HIGH COSTS: South African mines spend $280 to produce one ounce of gold, 25 percent more than in the United States or Australia, Chamber of Mines says. Mines are deepest in world, dipping 1.2 miles or more below surface.