Covid-19 hits SA’s mining sector

The mining industry in South Africa has two confirmed infections as essential operations continue during the 21-day lockdown.

According to the Minerals Council South Africa, the mining industry has two Covid-19 cases, one in Mpumalanga at a smelter and another in the North West Province at an opencast coal mine. The status of the infected employees is unknown. 

Spokesperson for the Minerals Council Charmane Russell said they knew the details of the two cases but “as far as providing more information, it is not something we are going to do”. 

“From a mineral health perspective, we are communicating on a national level. Companies themselves will disclose whether there is any impact on their operations”.

When asked if she could at least say whether the cases were executives from mine offices or workers working down the mines, Russell said “In both cases, these are not workers working down the mines and neither are either of the mines underground mines. Most of the industry is in lockdown at the moment”

As mentioned in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address on 23 March 2020, some mining operations will continue. “Companies whose operations require continuous processes such as furnaces [or] underground mine operations will be required to make arrangements for care and maintenance to avoid damage to their continuous operations,” said Ramaphosa.

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On 25 March 2020, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe said, “Mining operations will be scaled down significantly, particularly deep-level mining, which is labour intensive.” He outlined a set of essential services in mining that would remain operational during the lockdown. These include the coal mines supplying Eskom, and gold and platinum production, reportedly after lobbying from the employers. For other mining operations in the country, certain services continue: the security and maintenance services for each mine (especially underground), water pumping, refrigeration and ventilation, tailings management and specialised maintenance. The Minerals Council of South Africa confirmed that “the provision of water and other supplies to communities, as well as services to staff residences where required, will also continue”. 

Mining analyst Peter Major thinks South Africa’s precious metals sector is “probably the best equipped it has been in decades” to deal with the 21-day lockdown. He says that buoyant metal prices and solid wage agreements with unions have allowed mineral producers to tool up and weather the coronavirus storm, despite some smaller producers taking strain, but adds the caveat that global demand will slow and the lockdown in South Africa could be extended. 

Essential ores

Mantashe said the “production and distribution of petroleum products, including fuel, paraffin and liquefied petroleum gas” were considered essential and would continue. The Minerals Council confirmed, adding that “operations supplying Eskom will continue to be mined to optimise energy security, though at a reduced level. Coal supplied to enable the manufacture of liquid fuels is also considered an essential service.” Exxaro, Eskom’s largest coal supplier, remains operational. South Africa’s energy security depends on the ability to burn coal to generate electricity. 

But what about the high-grade coal that gets exported? None of these activities are being halted. Speaking to Business Day, a spokesperson at Exxaro said, “The need to minimise the economic impact of the lockdown by continuing with the generation of foreign exchange, will provide the financial capacity for the state to respond to the crisis by continuing, to the extent it is possible, with our coal exports to offshore customers.” 

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Platinum mining is also continuing, reportedly because these metals have medical uses. Platinum is used in cancer drugs and medical devices such as pacemakers. South Africa makes up roughly 75% of the world’s platinum and about 38% of the palladium supply. 

An agreement was reached between the Minerals Council and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy that there “must be a reduction in production”, according to the director general of the department, Thabo Mokoena, but smelters and processing plants would have to remain operational as they cannot be completely shut down. Mantashe said, “We are mindful that in some mining operations and processing plants a complete shutdown will not be feasible, as a restart from scratch may be too costly. This would negatively affect security of supply, and therefore the economy as a whole.”

Furnaces cannot readily be shut off, even during maintenance. If temperatures fluctuate too much, they could become damaged. 

What about the mineworkers?

The scaling down of production obviously means fewer personnel on the mines and an effort to decrease movement related to the sector, in line with the Covid-19 infection prevention measures. In response to a question on job losses in the sector, Mokoena said, “We are not foreseeing that at the moment … We are dealing with a global challenge … The mining companies are quite amenable to that.” Mantashe said in his address about the lockdown that “it’s not a paid holiday”. When asked whether workers would be paid or not, he said, “We leave that to employers and unions.” 

An agreement has not been reached between unions and employers. Employers are taking up the position of “no work, no pay”, as if this were a strike. The unions’ response has been absolute rejection. In the midst of a pandemic, with markets in decline and demand inconsistent, factories being shuttered and the recent downgrade of South Africa to junk investment status by Moody’s, employers are closing ranks. There are exceptions. Amplats employees sent home for three weeks will be paid basic wages and their housing allowance. The mine will also maintain employees’ pension and medical aid contributions. But this is not the position of most miners. 

Risks of infection 

With two confirmed cases of Covid-19 infection and certain mining operations continuing, there is a strong possibility of infections spreading in the sector. The vulnerable points in the industry are many. At the gate to the mine there are breathalysers and turnstiles. Change houses and lamp rooms (where workers receive their cap lamps and rescue packs) are often crowded. “Cages” or shaft personnel elevators and elevator landings are congested as are rail-bound personnel trains, which ferry mineworkers deep into the ground. Underground there is circular ventilation and many machines and tools handled by everyone. The hostel system has mostly changed for the better in the industry but remains a significant risk as hundreds of mineworkers still live together in close quarters. 

Most mining operations are remote and this limits access to healthcare for those still working at them. Many of the mining hospitals have either been shut or their systems centralised. Mines generally now rely on the private sector to support the healthcare needs of their employees. Some larger employers, such as Impala Platinum or Sibanye-Stillwater, do still have mine hospitals and clinics within their mining grounds, but they only have a small staff contingent. Access to healthcare remains uneven across the sector. 

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The mining industry in South Africa still employs significant numbers of migrant workers from Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique. But there is a reduced risk of virus transfer at labour sending areas with the border closures and the country in lockdown. 

Economic balancing act

During the period before the lockdown and after the state of disaster announcement on 15 March, the mining industry was waiting on government to give instructions on how to best halt the spread of Covid-19 in the sector. The Mine Health and Safety Act sets out parameters for prohibiting or restricting work when health hazards arise, including stipulating the standards of fitness required to work in such contexts. The Act also requires the employer to manage the risk, put hygiene measures into place and make a plan to provide medical help if necessary.  

Mantashe could immediately have used his powers as Minister contained in sections 75 and 76 of the Act to prohibit or restrict mining activities, but to do so would have meant an interruption in production, which would affect salaries. Of course, the halt could have also put a stop to the virus in the industry. The origins of the two confirmed cases in the sector are not yet known. 

The mining sector in South Africa accounts for about 18% of gross domestic product and employs over 450 000 workers, most of whom support 10 or more people. We can only expect the number of Covid-19 cases in mining to increase and with it the risk to those employees who must continue to work during this pandemic. 

Additional reporting by Anna Majavu.

Lev Blissett is a pseudonym. Blissett is employed in the mining industry.

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