Mining sector says 9 employees to date have Covid-19, none at the mines

ARCHIVE PHOTO: the Sibanye-Stillwater Khuseleka platinum mine, operated by Sibanye Gold Ltd., outside Rustenburg, South Africa on Wednesday, Oct. 16 2019. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

South Africa's mining industry has recorded nine cases of Covid-19 to date, most involving head office staff. Meanwhile, the industry’s gradual reboot has reached about 30% capacity for the sector as a whole.

These were some of the details to emerge from a virtual briefing by the Minerals Council South Africa on Tuesday, 28 April. Several companies including Sibanye-Stillwater, Anglo American and Gold Fields also provided presentations about the steps they are taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as they ramp up operations. These include intensive screening and the provision of protective gear.

No miners have been recalled yet from neighbouring states such as Lesotho – which still provides a significant percentage of the industry’s migrant workforce – because South Africa’s borders remain closed. Many of those workers have, to date, been paid at least in part, depending on the company that employs them, but that will not continue indefinitely. Among other things, this will mean additional hardship in politically volatile and impoverished Lesotho since its economy partly depends on remittances from workers employed by South Africa’s mines.  

The situation remains fluid and there remain a lot of uncertainties. The industry is calculating the costs of the pandemic and lockdown thus far – in terms of lost production and revenue, donations made, the procurement of protective items and expertise – but there is no firm figure yet. 

“It is too early to assess the impact on the industry,” said Tebello Chabana, the senior executive for public affairs and transportation at the Minerals Council. 

Of the nine confirmed cases of Covid-19 so far, only a couple have involved mine workers and they do not appear to have been infected at any mine. Most of those affected involve head office staff who have been in contact with overseas travellers, the council said..

“The emphasis has been on prevention, prevention, prevention,” said Thuthula Balfour, the Head of Health at the Minerals Council.

A lot is at stake here. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) has a case in the Labour Court that seeks to compel the DMRE to issue binding nationwide regulations on managing Covid-19 on mines. The merits of Amcu’s case will be heard on 29 April. The National Union of Mineworkers has also expressed concerns about the ramp-up, underscoring the anxieties of its rank and file. 

Under Level 4, coal mines and open cast operations can operate at 100%, while those underground can do so at 50%. 

The industry is in some ways better equipped for pandemic prevention than most, with tightly controlled access to shafts where screening takes place, as well as its own hospitals and other facilities that can be used for quarantines.

But outside of mechanised or open-cast operations, it is labour intensive and many workers can find themselves close together in cramped spaces – hence the protective masks and other kit which comes on top of the gloves, helmets and overalls miners already wear underground. 

Their living conditions can also be crowded. Still, with only nine out of South Africa’s confirmed 4,793 confirmed cases to date, the industry seems to be doing something right. BM 



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