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Mining Indaba opens to South Africa telling a much better safety story

Mining Indaba opens to South Africa telling a much better safety story
The Mining Indaba. (Photo: Flickr / Mining Indaba)

South Africa’s mining sector has many challenges — the list is as deep as a Witwatersrand gold reef — but a closer focus on mining safety sees the country marking the first fatality-free month in its history.

South Africa’s mining sector faces many headwinds and it is becoming an increasingly hard sell to the investors who are in Cape Town for the Investing in African Mining Indaba from 6 to 9 February.

As the name suggests, the focus of the conference is on the entire African continent, which remains the world’s poorest despite — some might say because of — its fabulous mineral wealth.

But South Africa is the host of this annual shindig and the draw of Cape Town in February for investors, bankers, analysts and executives from places such as Vancouver and London is obvious.

It’s a premier chance to promote South Africa as a destination for mining investment, which the government has often squandered even as attendees have enjoyed a dop under a blazing Cape Town sun.

One emerging ray of light is the improving performance of South Africa’s mining industry on the health and safety front. Since we are talking about human lives, the importance of this issue cannot be overstated.

Reducing the toll

Matters of health and safety are high on the investor radar screen these days. And South Africa’s mining industry — which has accounted for more than 80,000 accidental deaths since the late 19th century — has been making huge strides to reduce the toll.

Data released on 31 January by Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe show that 2022 was a record safety year for South African mining, with 49 miners killed at work, a 34% fall from the 74 deaths recorded in 2021.

That’s still a terrible number: 49 families lost loved ones and breadwinners. Mining accidents are brutal. But progress is undeniably being made, even if the noble goal of “zero harm” remains elusive.

In January 2023, not a single miner in South Africa was killed at work, the first time this has happened in a calendar month. The fact that it is a milestone underscores the sheer scale of the carnage.

Hazardous setting

Among many initiatives, a concerted effort to address fall-of-ground incidents is bearing fruit. There were six fall-of-ground fatalities last year — six too many but a remarkable achievement in the hazardous setting of South Africa’s platinum and gold mines, which are the world’s deepest.

“The number of [fall-of-ground] fatalities had fallen to an average of 24 a year in the 2016-2020 five-year period from an average of 111 a year in 2001-2005, a 78% improvement,” the Minerals Council SA said.

“The key interventions were the implementation of entry examinations and actively making working areas safe daily from 2009. In 2012, netting and bolting of tunnel roofs and walls were introduced and the use of steel nets has become a common feature in South Africa’s deep-level mines.”

Safety action plan

The renewed drive by mining CEOs and the Mining Council’s July 2021 action plan have focused on key areas such as the mechanised bolting of overhead safety netting at the stope, improved lighting, the removal of loose rocks and intense monitoring of work areas.

Technical advances in research and development, such as hand-held radar to detect falls of ground in advance, drawing on proven methods used in open-cast operations, are promising.

Much of this is being driven by the embracing of environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns, which have risen to the top of corporate agendas.

A growing number of commentators see all this as the latest “corporate con”, and there is a kernel of truth in that view. Toxic corporate behaviour today can be costly in the future. Civil law suits, stiff criminal penalties and the like can loom in the future.

Just ask Glencore about that, or the gold producers that have set aside R5-billion to compensate miners who ­contracted the incurable lung disease silicosis from inhaling silica dust from gold-bearing rock. The history of South African mining has often been one of grotesque exploitation.

ESG backlash

But it is also revealing to note where much of the backlash is stemming from. The US Republican Party — which has been going off the rails for years — is among the forces leading the charge.

As Natale Labia recently noted in Business Maverick, the treasuries of the deeply red states of Florida and Louisiana have pulled $3-billion out of asset manager and ESG investor BlackRock, accusing it of being “hostile”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Three main reasons why investors should beware of the ESG con

This is the same Republican Party that has been at the forefront of America’s culture wars, leading a political backlash against abortion and women’s rights more broadly, the LGBTQI+ community, black civil rights, efforts to address climate change, and almost every progressive cause under the sun, which it at least acknowledges Earth revolves around.

The ESG zeitgeist that US Republicans have in their sights is among the factors saving mostly black lives underground in South Africa. And this matters to a growing number of investors, underscoring how the Republican Party and other far-right political movements are becoming detached from contemporary capitalism and financial markets, which they claim to champion.

South Africa’s mining sector has many challenges — the list is as deep as a Witwatersrand gold reef: the lack of a transparent cadastral system to enable investors and the public to see the state of play of mining rights; policy uncertainty; menacing procurement mafias; soaring power and labour costs as well as Eskom’s and Transnet’s woes. 

But as the industry parties under Cape Town skies this week, it will be the first time it has done so when not a single miner in South Africa was killed by accident at work in the preceding month. That is something to raise a glass to. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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