Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

SA’s mining industry is heading for the deadliest year since 2012 after six people died in an underground fire at Palabora Mining copper operation.

Sunday’s accident brings the industry’s total to at least 54 and is the second-worst incident in 2018 after seven people died at a Sibanye Gold mine when an earth tremor caused a rockfall.

The latest incident will be investigated by the Department of Mineral Resources, Minister Gwede Mantashe said.

“These deaths add to an already high number of lost lives in the industry since the beginning of the year,” Mantashe said in an e-mailed statement.

South African mining fatalities increased in 2017 for the first time in a decade. Less than seven months into 2018, the industry is on pace for the most deaths since the 112 in 2012.

While the toll is still far below the 553 recorded in 1995, the trend poses questions about the future of mining in SA, as workers follow depleting orebodies deeper in a country mined commercially for over a century.

A focus on safety in 2018 has mainly fallen on Sibanye, the nation’s biggest gold mining employer, whose operations account for 21 deaths so far. Sibanye, labour unions and the government in June pledged to form a plan of action to tackle health and safety.

Trade unions have lashed out at both the government and mining houses for falling safety standards in the mines. They said the government should do more to ensure the regulatory environment was up to date. They said the mining houses were mainly preoccupied with profit and production at the expense of safety.

“We want more accountability and other measures to improve safety,” said Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

Palabora Mining operates an underground mine that produces 80,000 tonnes of copper ore a year, according to the company’s website. It was sold by Rio Tinto Group and Anglo American to a consortium of investors including Hebei Iron & Steel Group Mining Company, China’s largest steel maker, in a deal concluded in 2013.

“We vehemently condemn this kind of incident,” the National Union of Mineworkers said in a statement on Monday. The union urged the Department of Mineral Resources, which is the regulator, “to play its role in ensuring that mines are safe and put the safety of the mineworkers as a priority”.