SA’s mines are bringing back 9,500 employees in neighbouring countries as operations slowly ramp back to full production, with about half the workforce back at operations.

An estimated 45,000 foreign nationals work on SA’s mines out of a total workforce of 450,000 people, which have been called back to work after the economy was shut down late in March when the government implemented a strict lockdown to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

So far, about half the workforce, more than 227,000 people, have been screened daily as employees are recalled, with 7,461 tests conducted and 527 positive cases detected. So far there have been 72 recoveries and no deaths.

The number of screenings show that the industry is nowhere near a full return to operations. The cost of the lockdown in lost production and salaries paid during the period is estimated to be about R100bn.

The entire industry was given the green light to return to full operations on April 16 by mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe, but the mines, particularly the large underground gold and platinum mines, are taking a cautious, phased approach to reaching steady state production.

The risks are high if too many employees are returned too quickly and strict adherence to safety protocols are not followed.

At AngloGold Ashanti’s Mponeng mine, the testing of 650 employees resulted in a third proving positive for the virus, prompting the company to close the world’s deepest mine. Those testing positive were all asymptomatic.

The asymptomatic nature of so many of the positive tests is a “big headache” for the industry, which relies heavily on screening as the first line of defence to stopping the virus spreading at mines, said Thuthula Balfour, head of health at the Minerals Council SA.

Screening involves the taking of temperatures and answering a detailed questionnaire, none of which will flag a miner who is asymptomatic, meaning they are able to go to work, potentially infecting their colleagues.

“Up to 40% of people with Covid-19 can be asymptomatic. That’s what we’re finding; very large numbers of people are asymptomatic,” she said.

“It’s a big problem.”

Balfour said the screening is not 100% effective.

“Those who are asymptomatic have gone through screening but it doesn't pick up the disease.

“The people who have been asymptomatic, we've not heard that they've become symptomatic and progressed to a severe disease.”

 The return of 9,500 foreigners will entail a three-month process to screen them in their home countries, transport them across borders, then into strict quarantine in SA before they are allowed back onto the mines, said Minerals Council SA’s health and environment executive Niks Lesufi.

The council, a body that promotes and protects the interests of its members, could not say how many of the 45,000 foreigners had returned home or had opted to remain in SA.

Companies will pick up the costs of each employee returning from neighbouring countries, which include Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, countries in which mineworker services and recruitment agency TEBA has offices.

TEBA will play a major role in the initial screenings in conjunction with health authorities in those countries, and organising transport to the quarantine sites in SA, which are mostly converted hostels mining companies have prepared for this purpose.