Mining communities must have a say in Covid-19 safety

The coronavirus will not only affect mineworkers but also the communities in which they live. It is imperative that community networks have a say in mining safety guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is not disputed that the vulnerability of mineworkers in turn renders the communities in which they live vulnerable to Covid-19. There are almost half a million mineworkers in South Africa. Any Covid-19 infection at a mine is likely to spread to the communities surrounding the mine where the mineworkers live.”

These were the words of Judge Andre van Niekerk in the recent AMCU vs Minister of Mineral Resources matter that ordered Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe to engage meaningfully with relevant stakeholders, including community networks, when drafting guidelines around health and safety for operating mines during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mantashe’s announcement that mines will reopen at various capacities has resulted in thousands of mineworkers returning to their respective workplaces. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has, however, raised concerns about the ability of mining companies to effectively protect workers and prevent the spread of the virus. As a result, there have been strong calls for mines to reopen only under strictly binding measures that ensure the protection of their workers. These calls resulted in the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) lodging an urgent application in the Labour Court to demand that the government implement such measures. 

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Mines reopening not only places mineworkers at risk but it also exposes mining-affected communities to Covid-19.

While Amcu was successful in ensuring that all mining companies put safety measures in place, non-governmental network Mining Affected Communities United in Action (Macua) joined the proceedings as an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, to lobby for the protection of communities that will be affected by mines reopening. The court accepted and upheld this argument. In essence, mining-affected communities are demanding a seat at the table. And they deserve it.

For many years, these communities have fought to be included in industry discussions, to be heard and consulted in decision-making processes relating to mining. They have fought for the right to say no, the right to participate meaningfully, the right to be recognised as key stakeholders and to have a voice in decisions that ultimately affect them. Yet on numerous occasions, they have at best been ignored.

Instead, companies have frequently defaulted on their social and labour plan commitments, and the government has on several occasions failed to heed the call of residents in these areas to be properly consulted in the development of mining laws and policies. But the intrinsic relationship between mining companies, mineworkers and mining-affected communities demands that the latter be treated as core stakeholders whose participation and contribution is indispensable to the process of mining. This standpoint is particularly heightened at a time when mining activities are to recommence during a global pandemic.

Fundamental role

This three-way relationship once again proves that any measures mining companies put in place or fail to enact to limit the spread of Covid-19 will directly contribute to the level of risk that mining-affected communities face. Poverty and the burdens these residents already experience exacerbate this risk. Without water, sanitation and adequate housing, they are unable to observe life-saving practices such as hand-washing, regular disinfection of their living environments and practising social distancing. Additionally, residents are often plagued by respiratory diseases caused by pollution from the mines. This makes them more susceptible to dying from the coronavirus should they contract it.

Women and children are large components of mining-affected communities. They not only support the mineworkers but also sustain the areas in which the miners live. The exposure of mineworkers to Covid-19 will surely spill over into their communities. This underscores the reality that without meaningful effort by mining companies and the government to ensure the protection of mineworkers while they are working, the virus could easily spread and devastate the lives of thousands of already vulnerable people.

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Legislation such as the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act and the National Environmental Management Act recognises the fundamental role that mining-affected communities play in the industry. It is therefore plausible to require that they have the same standing when it comes to crafting legal frameworks that will inform a comprehensive and coordinated health and safety response at mines during this time.

The Labour Court’s recent order demonstrates how the impact on mining-affected communities remains a relevant consideration even amid a traditional employer-employee relationship between mining companies and mineworkers. This is particularly relevant where the actions of the mining companies directly affect the lives of all residents in the area. 

The judgment has cemented the position of such communities as those who can and should have their voices heard. They are invested, and rightly so, in the decisions mining companies make during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is important that they have the agency to determine what measures will best protect them and how these can be achieved. This can only be realised with mining-affected communities present at the table. 

As MACUA eloquently states, decisions affecting communities can no longer be made without the communities themselves. Nothing about us without us.

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