Confusion reigns as mining sector tries to restart

Confusion reigns as mining sector tries to restart
A general shot of Driefontein Gold Mine shaft, located 70 km (43 miles) west of Johannesburg, is seen near Carletonville, REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko A general shot of Driefontein Gold Mine shaft, located 70 km (43 miles) west of Johannesburg, is seen near Carletonville, September 4, 2013. A strike for higher pay hit production at most of South Africa's gold mines on Wednesday, but the main union behind the stoppage said it was willing to relax some of its demands.The stoppage called by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) began at the evening shift on Tuesday, with many miners refusing to go underground. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS ENERGY BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT CIVIL UNREST) - RTX1376G

The mining industry’s bid to embark on a gradual reboot was engulfed in uncertainty this week when Sibanye-Stillwater and Implats employees returning to Rustenburg mines were blocked by police. The sector, which has social control in its DNA, may be better equipped than most for an orderly restart — though it must tread carefully in the wake of the historic silicosis settlement.

Parts of South Africa’s mining sector have been producing at reduced capacity since the start of the lockdown almost three weeks ago, while other companies have signalled their intention to begin laying the groundwork for a restart, with workers asked to return. The restart initiative followed talks involving the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, trade unions and Minerals Council South Africa.

But things hit a brick wall on Tuesday when police stopped miners from returning to platinum operations around Rustenburg operated by Sibanye-Stillwater and Impala Platinum. The police ministry and the DMRE were clearly not on the same page. Neither immediately responded to requests for comment about the issue.

Implats spokesman Johan Theron told Business Maverick the company’s Rustenburg operation had been surrounded by police. “We have asked only essential services people to report until misunderstandings have been sorted on the ability to bring some extra workers back,” Theron said on Wednesday. 

Sibanye had said in a statement on 13 April that it was aiming for a limited restart to its gold and platinum operations this week after receiving DMRE approval.

Its employees also mostly failed to get through the Rustenburg police gauntlet, but those returning to gold operations in western Gauteng had no issues with police, spokesman James Wellsted said. He added that employees at surface operations had been told to stay away until the situation was clarified with the government.

The situation is as clear as a cheap bottle of brandy, which is probably easier to obtain right now than clarity on the issue. The cabinet’s economic cluster met on Wednesday and there were hopes it would produce some answers.

Did the DMRE overstep the mark in agreeing to a limited restart? Companies seemed content with its approvals and they must have had legal advice on the matter.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said in a statement on Wednesday it had met Harmony Gold management and “agreed that all workers in all Harmony Gold operations in South Africa will be going back to work on the 2 May 2020 after the second lockdown”.

“The company has committed that stringent measures will be put in place in all its operations in South Africa to ensure the health and safety of all workers,” said the union.

“The NUM health and safety structures and management at Harmony Gold operations will be part of the task teams to assess and monitor to see if the company is adhering to the health and safety standards when all workers are back at work. The two parties agreed that the health and safety of the workers comes first and will not be compromised,” NUM said.

In an emailed response to Business Maverick queries, Harmony said that “provided the lockdown is behind us, those are the days (after 1 May) we will all be back at work with all the Covid-19 preventative measures in place”.

The mining industry is probably better placed than others to put in place such preventative measures — social control is in its DNA and has been a key feature of its history for more than a century. In the past, that included repressive measures aimed at exploiting a rural, migrant labour force through influx controls, compounds and the “night trains” that historian Charles van Onselen brought to attention in a recent book.

Even today, access to mining operations remains tightly controlled and the industry can probably set up adequate screening measures at entry points (though it has had to dispense with breathalysers for obvious reasons). It also has its own hospitals and other medical facilities.

Still, there are risks galore as miners aim for a cautious build up to pre-lockdown production levels in the post-lockdown period. Workers returning from rural areas in Eastern Cape and Lesotho could potentially bring the virus with them, though such regions do not appear to be “hot spots” as yet.

Workspaces in South Africa’s underground mines are often cramped and crowded, including in the packed “cages” that take the workers below the surface. Physical distancing means the cages will make a lot more trips into the depths.

The industry has made strides on the health and safety front in recent years, but its workforce still has a significant HIV/AIDS and TB caseload, underlying conditions that make people more likely to fall ill or die if they become infected with the coronavirus.

If something goes terribly wrong with the restart, legal action is not out of the question. There is the precedent of the settlement in the class-action suit brought against the gold industry by human rights lawyer Richard Spoor — reached almost two years ago to the tune of R5 billion.  

Asked about the potential for legal action, Spoor told Business Maverick that “it depends how badly they mess it up and if the outbreak could be traced back to the responsible mine”.

Limited operations at reduced production have continued at iron ore mines operated by Kumba, some Anglo American Platinum open-pit and mechanised mines, and coal mines that supply Eskom. Some production of chrome, which has medical uses, is also going on.

But most operations in the sector, which accounts for 8% of GDP and is a key source of foreign exchange, have been on “care and maintenance” with skeleton staffing to maintain the integrity of operations so they can restart safely.

The initial restart will in many cases require additional staff to prepare workplaces and ensure they are safe before everyone comes back. This interim phase seems to be what some companies are hoping to roll out between now and the end of the lockdown.

Stay tuned but, in the realm of government and lockdown policy, don’t expect the bottle of brandy to become gin-clear anytime soon. BM



"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted