On safe ground: A miner at Beatrix gold mine near Welkom returns to the surface after being stuck underground after a power cut last week. There was no cause for alarm, but the media made the most of the situation and portrayed it as a mining disaster. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE
On safe ground: A miner at Beatrix gold mine near Welkom returns to the surface after being stuck underground after a power cut last week. There was no cause for alarm, but the media made the most of the situation and portrayed it as a mining disaster. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE

Last Thursday, a Sibanye Gold spokesman was being interviewed on Radio 702 about nearly 1,000 miners unable to return from the previous nightshift due to a storm that had wrecked electricity pylons and cut Eskom power to the Beatrix mine.

Although there were back-up generators at the mine, at least one had been damaged by the resulting power surge, leaving insufficient power to operate the winder that winches the cage (generally more than 100 men at a time) to the surface.

There was apparently sufficient generator capacity to ensure that through-ventilation and communications were maintained. The miners waiting underground for the power to be restored had air, water, food and access to toilets. While obviously unpleasant, the danger level of the situation was relatively low.

But reading some media reports and responses on social media, the situation at Beatrix seemed akin to a genuine mining disaster on the scale of the trapped Chilean miners in 2010 or Lily Mine in 2016.

News 24’s tweet of its story had a headline "1,000 trapped" and used the word "rescue". On social media, commentators opined, incorrectly, that noxious gases would become a hazard, and that the miners had no water. Even Section 27 tweeted, incorrectly, that there were no toilets underground.

One commentator queried why President Jacob Zuma hadn’t made an appearance as the Chilean president had when 33 miners were trapped under a rock fall for 69 days.

When all the miners were brought to the surface normally (no rescue operation needed) as soon as power was restored by Eskom some 30 hours later, medical attention was available but none was sought, not even for "distress".

One miner interviewed said they had "mostly slept"; another said they had spent the time worrying that their wives and children were worrying about them. That afternoon, urgent meetings were held between mine management, the unions and Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane. But there were no meetings, it seems, between the energy minister and Eskom about how pylons carrying high-voltage lines could be blown over in a storm.

While the mining sector has experienced a steady decline over the past two decades, it remains important to SA, accounting for about 8% of GDP in 2016, according to Statistics SA. The sector employs less than 3% of the workforce.

Some of SA’s mines, like those in the coal sector, are not very different from mines elsewhere. Others, like the gold and platinum mines, are deeper, larger or have narrower ore bodies than those in other countries. As a rule of thumb, narrow vein deposits are more difficult to mine and need people up close to the rock face. Technology has not yet been able to fully get around this requirement.

Working faces just more than 1.2m high preclude the use of large, mechanised machinery that have been instrumental in increasing productivity and safety in mines in Australia and Canada. In those countries, many mines have massive ore bodies that can be mined remotely using large machines, which removes people from high-risk areas.

Having people working at the rock face, drilling, blasting and loading out broken ore puts them in harm’s way. Most of SA’s mining employment (and revenue) comes from narrow-vein gold and platinum mines, which employ about 60% of the mining workforce. It is debatable if such mines would be built in Australia due to their inherent risks and their insatiable need for labour.

In SA’s gold and platinum mines wages are lower than those in Australia because more people per tonne of rock are needed locally, largely due to ore-body geometries.

The late Hugh Masekela’s song Stimela is a haunting eulogy to the millions of migrant workers who made their way to the Witwatersrand to labour on the mines. The 1906 poll tax and 1913 Natives Land Act benefited the mining industry during colonialism and apartheid.

This has not been properly acknowledged by the Chamber of Mines, as is evidenced by the self-justified submission it made to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which did not include a written apology for its historical role. This undoubtedly contributed to the deep anger at, and visceral distrust of, mine owners in SA.

In January, with unemployment at over 27%, according to Stats SA (the highest level in 15 years), the country’s leadership went to the World Economic Forum in Davos keen to reflect a break with the immediate past. So … whither mining?

The scrutiny to which deaths and injuries on industrial-scale mines are subjected is entirely justified. What is not justified is the disparate treatment meted out to these mining enterprises compared with others that kill or injure: road deaths and deaths of Zama Zamas — artisanal miners in disused mines, especially on the East Rand.

While the media covered the deaths of more than 40 Zama Zamas in an underground explosion in 2017 and the execution-style murder of another seven weeks ago, the coverage was low-key and there was none of the social media hype we witnessed last week with Beatrix

With a population of about 55-million, there were more than 14,000 road deaths in 2016, according to the Road Traffic Management Corporation, a rate of 25.5 deaths per 100,000. Out of a formal mining workforce of about 500,000, there were 73 deaths in 2016, according to the Chamber of Mines, a rate of 14.9 deaths per 100,000.

And yet it seems the minister of transport seldom visits a transport company or taxi association for an urgent meeting after a road accident that results in neither fatalities nor injuries.

Accurate statistics for Zama Zama injuries and fatalities are unavailable and uncalculated.

The illegality of the operations makes proper research and reporting close to impossible, but judging by press reports, the rates of death are vastly higher than for formal mining — yet little action has been taken by the Department of Mineral Resources or anyone else in  the government.

While the media covered the deaths of more than 40 Zama Zamas in an underground explosion in 2017 and the execution-style murder of another seven weeks ago, the coverage was low-key and there was none of the social media hype we witnessed last week with Beatrix.

What message is being sent to mining companies by the government and the media (the medium through which citizens have conversations with the powers that be)? It seems to be that the history of mining is so toxic, and companies are so distrusted and reviled, that South Africans wish they were not doing business here.

At least three mining majors have clearly got that message. International mining companies BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto have largely packed up and left. Home-grown Anglo American is conducting strategic reviews and is, essentially, withdrawing to focus on other markets.

If South Africans do not want to mine narrow-vein ore bodies because of the dangers, then fine and well, but they will have to grapple with the massive hole in GDP and corporate tax collections, and the soaring unemployment figures, that will inevitably result.

But if SA does not want its gold and platinum mines to close, then the country’s treatment of the industry (including by the media) appears to be biased, unfair and disproportionate when compared with other sectors.

• Justine Limpitlaw is a visiting adjunct professor at the LINK Centre, University of the Witwatersrand and Daniel Limpitlaw is a visiting associate professor of mining engineering at the Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry at the University of the Witwatersrand.

 

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