AngloGold Ashanti's Mponeng gold mine near Carletonville could soon be sold as part of the company's plans to exit the local economy. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA
AngloGold Ashanti's Mponeng gold mine near Carletonville could soon be sold as part of the company's plans to exit the local economy. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA

AngloGold temporarily shut the world’s deepest gold mine after 164 employees tested positive for the coronavirus shortly after the SA government allowed the limited reopening of the country’s underground mines.

As SA comes to the end of its second month of a strict economic and social lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, mines that had been shut since March 27 were allowed to reopen with half their normal staff from the start of May.

The return of more than 200,000 people to the mines, many from rural areas in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal and other provinces, has been a huge logistical exercise.

The underground mines are high-risk areas for companies that restarted operations, with thousands of workers needing to go underground in small cages after grouping together in gathering areas. The conditions underground are also confined.

Since the mines restarted after the government said on April 16 that surface mines could return to 100% of capacity and underground mines at half that level, a number of companies have found workers testing positive for the virus.

So far, excluding AngloGold, 85 mine employees have tested positive for the virus, of whom 13 have recovered. One mineworker died during the lockdown period.  

AngloGold detected its first positive case at its Mponeng mine near Carletonville, Gauteng, through screening. After checking who the infected employee had been in contact with and then carrying out 650 tests, at least 164 came back positive, with a small number of test results still to be finalised.

“Importantly, of the positive cases, the vast majority are asymptomatic,” AngloGold said in a statement.

“All positive cases will be isolated in line with national health protocols, with on-site facilities available for those who may need them,” it said on Sunday. The mine had 2,400 employees back at work.

AngloGold is selling Mponeng and all its other SA mining assets to Harmony Gold for $300m as it focuses on its offshore businesses, citing a better return on investment.

AngloGold decided to temporarily close the mine to continue its tracking and testing processes.

Impala Platinum was the first big mining company to suspend a mine after 19 employees tested positive for the virus at its Marula mine near Steelpoort, Limpopo, in mid-May. Like AngloGold, all the cases were asymptomatic, which means there were no symptoms of the virus.

Two of the Marula employees had returned to work from the Eastern Cape while the other 17 lived in the communities around the mine. Implats said this suggested the rate of infection in communities was higher than it had estimated.

Minerals & energy minister Gwede Mantashe rushed to Marula to discuss the infections with mine management and provincial leadership.

Mantashe said the detection of the 19 infected employees was positive because, in line with his department's instructions, the screening and testing of returning mineworkers had proved effective.

“I've warned the mining industry that if one worker is found to be positive underground and we find the whole crew is positive, we will have the responsibility to close that mine. It's better to test and prevent infected people from going into the workplace. It protects the workers and it protects the industry,” Mantashe said on May 17.

Unions have called for universal testing of mineworkers, something the industry ruled out on Friday, arguing that there should be comprehensive testing in society and that a single industry should not be singled out for the costly exercise.

In SA, there are 21,343 confirmed cases of which 10,104 have recovered. So far, 407 people have died from the virus and  564,370 tests have been conducted.

The Dwarsrivier chrome mine owned by Assore was shut early in May after an employee tested positive for the virus.

seccombea@businesslive.co.za