The department of minerals and energy says mining companies that have not scaled down their operations during the 21-day lockdown will face penalties and warned that its inspectors will intensify scheduled and unannounced visits to ensure they are complying with National Disaster Act regulations.
According to the regulations only essential services supporting the sector such as security, maintenance, water pumping and ventilation will continue.
Mines supplying coal to Eskom will operate as usual, while others such as those producing gold, chrome manganese and iron ore have to operate at scaled down levels, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe said in an April 3 media briefing.
The reduction of operations is expected to have lasting financial consequences for the mining industry. The Minerals Council’s initial estimates show that production is likely to decline by 20% in April, and by 4.5% for the year. The council also estimates R7-billion in wages will be lost during the lockdown period.
These estimates are based on mining activities resuming smoothly on April 17 and do not take into account the additional costs incurred to place mines on care and maintenance operations.
The lockdown has already prompted major platinum producers Anglo American Platinum, Sibanye-Stillwater and Impala Platinum to declare a force majeure on contracts. This declaration allows the companies to ignore certain parts of binding agreements because of unforeseeable circumstances
Enforcing these regulations is not without problems, with labour unions accusing mining companies of not adhering to safety regulations and continuing to operate as usual thereby placing the lives of workers in danger.
Mantashe said a number of mining companies have applied to be exempt from the lockdown regulations and to continue operating, although at significantly reduced levels.
The minister confirmed that so far there are three confirmed cases of Covid-19 — in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Chrome and platinum producer Tharisa Minerals also confirmed to Mail & Guardian that one of its employees tested positive for the virus and has been sent into quarantine. The employee was exposed to the virus while training in Gauteng.
While the North West miner said it has adhered to all safety protocols in line with the government’s regulations during the lockdown, trade union Solidarity says more can be done by the mine to ensure the health and safety of all employees.
The National Union Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) have supported the directive from the government for mining companies to reduce the workforce and operate at a scaled-down level during the lockdown in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Amcu has slammed applications that normal mining operations resume during the lockdown to mitigate the financial losses facing the industry.
The NUM has accused some mining companies of flouting the lockdown regulations and continuing their operations as normal. This follows the death of a worker at the Village Main Reef West Gold Plant in Matlosana (Klerksdorp), which the NUM has accused of running at full production despite the lockdown.
There are no details of what caused his death. The incident occurred on the seventh day of the lockdown when the worker collapsed and died at the mine. The NUM says this could have been avoided because the worker was not part of the essential services at the mine.
The company has denied allegations by the NUM that it has been running at full production.
During an oversight visit to three collieries that supply coal to Eskom in Mpumalanga last week, Mantashe said the department had received information from employees that there are “incidents of non-adherence”.
The department went to Exxaro’s Matla Coal operation, Glencore’s Impunzi Colliery and Seriti’s Kriel Colliery to assess compliance with the regulations. Mantashe said the department found that not all three mines were ready to deal with the management of Covid-19 although there are some “pockets of excellence”.
The department says it does not have the impression that some mining companies are “willfully” defying the regulations but says any “non-adherence will be dealt with in line with the [lockdown] regulations”.
Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian