The Marikana massacre ought to have instituted a time of serious self-reflection and introspection in the mining industry. But, as the fatalities of mineworkers continue to rise, one wouldn’t be surprised to hear Queen’s The Show Must Go On blasting in the background of board meetings at some mining conglomerate headquarters.
The mining industry provides a paradox: Limpopo and North West may be mineral-rich but are among the poorest provinces in the country.
This inequality is also played out at other levels. South Africa is among the most unequal countries on the planet, with a Gini coefficient of 0.62 (0 being perfect equality and 1 being perfect inequality).
It’s apparent that the benefits stemming from South Africa’s mineral resource endowment are not enjoyed by the majority of South Africans. The living and working conditions of mineworkers are testament to this.
Sibanye-Stillwater is the largest gold mining employer in South Africa, the third-largest producer of platinum and palladium in the world and has business interests that span the continent and the world.
A week ago, Minister of Mineral Resources Gwede Mantashe said at a media conference that a report compiled by the mine health and safety inspectorate found that there had been 45 mineworker casualties this year. Twenty of those were at Sibanye.
As recently as June 25, another casualty was reported at Sibanye’s Driefontein operating branch near Carltonville. The spokesperson for the company, James Wellstead, said about the number of injuries and fatalities: “We think a lot of it is behavioural and due to people taking risks and not following safety procedures.”
What has become increasingly apparent from various stakeholders is that the conditions mineworkers find themselves in fall squarely into the category of “death traps”.
Sahlulele Luzipo, chairperson of the portfolio committee on mineral resources, has called for the company to be placed under curatorship and, if necessary, to wholly revoke the company’s operating licence. He said that “this is a national disaster, a crisis, and [a] crisis by one company mostly”, moreover stating: “The way things are now, Sibanye is becoming a threat to the right to life.”
The department of mineral resources echoed these sentiments, stating that “it cannot be business as usual”, and Mantashe has lambasted the current state of affairs, saying: “It’s not about rocks, it’s about people; if you ignore human beings, you will have no mining.”
This comes after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s calls for miners to refuse to work in hazardous conditions.
Similar responses to this crisis can be seen in the sentiments of the National Union of Mineworkers, (NUM), which has called for an amendment to the Mining Health and Safety Act — specifically section 23 — which states that miners have the right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions.
The NUM is considering specific procedures to supplement section 23, which will allow workers to enforce their rights without fear of victimisation by their employers.
NUM spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu said: “Currently, workers fear victimisation and unfair disciplinary action when calling upon this right. They fear being bullied and intimidated for making a stand. The obvious other fear relates to loss of income [and/or employment].”
The patience of various stakeholders is wearing thin regarding the accidents at Sibanye — and justifiably so.
It is promising that government has stressed that it will not budge on compromising on mining safety practices. As it stands, mining safety still falls short of acceptable levels, given the plethora of incidents that have occurred in the past 24 months.
There have been efforts to improve this state of affairs over the past decade, and preventable incidents such as those at Sibanye erode the incremental gains made in relation to mining safety.
As government, labour and mining companies continue to work together to seek solutions, the importance of miners working in safe conditions cannot be understated. Mining safety can be categorised under the broader theme of “responsible mineral resource extraction”.
Mining accidents affect mineworkers and their families hardest. Many of the men and women who work in mineshafts are the sole providers for their families. If they are injured or killed, the death knell rings for their families. Responsible mineral extraction involves mining companies rethinking their relationship with employees and other stakeholders who are affected by mining activities, such as mining communities.
Mining affects the environment in ways that are sometimes difficult to reverse. Air pollution and pollution of potable water that affects both livestock and people, and chronic illness and exposure to hazardous mining waste are some of the consequences of irresponsible mining. In addition, when mineral extraction is exhausted, often the land is no longer arable or suitable for human settlement and economic activities.
Mining companies are frequently domiciled in foreign countries and, as a consequence of this, the profits of mining undergo capital flight, with little or no reinvestment in the host country and community.
Given the vast mineral endowment South Africa has, extraction of mineral resources will continue to play a significant role in our economy, but we need to ensure that mining takes place for the benefit of everyone and not merely for the benefit of economic elites, whether black or white.
Mining companies such as Sibanye ought to reflect on the effect their activities have on both their employees and broader society. A relentless pursuit of profit that disregards the socioeconomic consequences cannot be the order of the day.
Civic society, labour and government should ensure that mining companies know that the days of “business as usual” has come to an end. Extractive and destructive mining practices can no longer be tolerated.
Bongi Maseko is an intern at the Institute for African Alternatives