After more than two decades of improving mine safety since the end of apartheid, SA’s progress has stalled with an increase in gold-mining deaths.
More than 50 people have died in the country’s mines in 2018, about the same number as this time last year. While annual death tolls are far lower than the 615 recorded in 1993 — the last full year of apartheid — 2017 witnessed the first rise in 10 years.
Most of the gold-mining fatalities are due to workers being crushed under falling rocks, caused by more frequent tremors as companies dig deeper for the precious metal, in some cases reaching depths of more than 4km. The government is investigating Sibanye Gold’s operations, where more than half the deaths occurred this year.
"When you wake up in the morning you think, will I come back dead or alive?" said Sivelly Mangola, a 40-year-old rock drill operator at Sibanye’s Driefontein mine, who was once trapped for 30 minutes by a rockfall. "It’s traumatising."
The death toll is the bleakest possible illustration of the human cost of mining in SA, where nine-hour shifts drilling narrow seams kilometres underground are a daily ordeal for thousands of workers. It also raises questions about the long-term viability of an industry that underpinned the economy for decades, but faces competition from cheaper, shallower mines from Ghana to Canada.
While SA’s producers insist keeping miners safe is their first priority, taking mines deeper and deeper poses severe challenges. The main problem is geology. Pressure from billions of tons of overlying rock results in tremors as gold is extracted from narrow seams, pushing the country’s labour-intensive industry close to the limits of human endeavour, according to Nick Holland, CEO of Gold Fields, which mines SA’s biggest deposit of the metal.
"This is not some earthquake that just happens — mining causes seismicity, so it’s us," Holland said in an interview.
"Every time we go underground, we are going into a hazardous environment."
SA’s apartheid economy was powered by the gold-mining industry, which used drill-and-blast methods, an army of cheap black labour and minimal safety standards to become the world’s top producer.
More than 24 years after the end of white-minority rule, a contraction in the size of the gold industry has helped curb fatalities, but the geology of SA deposits limits technological advances and keeps costs high. Gold is found mostly in narrow reefs that dip at 30-degree angles, getting progressively deeper after 130 years of mining. Workers can travel up to four hours a day through tunnels to work sites, where they drill holes in seams often just 30cm wide and use explosives to break the rock.
The department of mineral resources is investigating complaints that some workers are being victimised for refusing to enter what they feel are unsafe areas, chief mines inspector David Msiza said on August 17.
Some deaths could have been prevented, he said.
Some analysts are also concerned. More than 20 deaths at Sibanye this year undermines its investment case, Citigroup analysts Johann Steyn and Shashi Shekhar said in July.
Citi said it was concerned that Sibanye had reduced management oversight and mined high-grade pillars that were previously considered "too dangerous" to exploit.
Sibanye has undertaken a rapid-fire series of acquisitions that transformed the company into a diversified precious-metals miner with both Southern African and US assets. Now it’s seeking to acquire platinum producer Lonmin.
Steyn declined to comment further when called by Bloomberg News. Sibanye CEO Neal Froneman said Citi’s information was inaccurate and the company was committed to workers’ safety. Company spokesman James Wellsted said the analysts’ conclusions were not backed by data.
Msiza declined to comment further on the government’s investigation into Sibanye.
Gold Fields has reported no fatalities this year, but its struggle to turn around is unprofitable South Deep mine’s deposits mirror some of the challenges facing SA.
The company’s plan to stem monthly losses of R100m involves more than 1,500 jobs cuts. This plan has drawn a hostile reaction from a government facing a 27% unemployment rate.
SA has the world’s largest gold reserves after Australia, but declining profitability may deter the investment required for more mechanised operations.
"There is still a large resource there, but for our industry to survive there ought to be a steep change in technology we use, to bring costs down," said Raymond Durrheim, a professor of geo-sciences at the University of Witwatersrand. "Mining could still go on for the next decades, but as margins get squeezed, there is less appetite for that kind of investment."
Gold output slumped for a ninth consecutive month in June as producers struggle with a volatile currency and government regulations that seek to redistribute the nation’s mineral wealth.
Even if miners can restore profitability, the technology to mechanise SA’s gold mines does not currently exist, according to Durrheim.
"With current mining methods, seismicity will continue to be with us," said Durrheim.