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A miner works underground at a Johannesburg gold mine. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA
A miner works underground at a Johannesburg gold mine. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA

Death is a painful ordeal for those who survive, and usually for the person who is in the process of dying. There are risks in every activity related to mining and our role as people at all levels in the sector is to work hard in ensuring we minimise the risks we are exposed to.  

The old notion that the only safe mine is a closed mine is not true. We can achieve better safety records and deliver “zero harm”.

We have managed to reduce mine fatalities from as high as 600 in 1993 to 51 in 2019. Should I refer to this as progress? Employees still lose their lives in this industry and it’s not acceptable. The years 2020 and 2021 have shown a deteriorating trend, with 69 deaths in 2021 up to December 6.

There are several reasons our industry experiences fatalities: negligence; recklessness; mistakes caused through human error; failure to address certain risks; and many more. A further factor has been the effect of Covid-19 on our physical and mental health. But another important factor is the changing ownership structure of the industry due to consolidations, mergers, acquisitions and business rescue processes.

Having been involved in a number of acquisitions, it has become clear to me that players in these processes need to be more aware of the effect of change in corporate ownership and other forms of corporate restructuring on employees. Do we give any, or sufficient, thought to the effect that an announcement of the sale of an asset has on the lives of the employees as they go about their work?

The past decade has produced several structural changes in global and local mining businesses, as assets were either restructured or sold by different mining houses. In SA alone, we have seen several assets change hands, and in other instances, new mining businesses have evolved as a result of these developments.

Today, as I pen this article, we are all reading about Implats and Northam competing for the assets of Royal Bafokeng Platinum.

Having led several transactions in different industries, including mining, I have had stressful moments when transactions took different turns. Many decisions have had to be made in stressful circumstances with very competitive lead times.

This is not an easy journey for those on the inside, even while others on the outside may consider them interesting, or even fun and exciting. What makes this more complex is that the media will continue to report on these transactions. Very often employees will read about it in the public media before they are communicated to formally.

The public announcements by companies in these situations are based on what shareholders might need to know, and what the stock exchange requires must be disclosed from shareholders’ perspectives. They generally do not take into account the effect on employees, or how they should be worded from the employees’ perspectives.

If the executives who manage these mergers, acquisitions and takeovers find those activities to be stressful and to some extent not good for one’s health, what does it mean for an employee who every day faces the stress of learning about these developments regarding his or her company and must continue immediately with their risky job?

When employees are informed that their business is going to be sold to a new owner, surely they become deeply concerned about their livelihoods and critical questions cross their minds. They wish to know about their future, they wish to understand what the transaction is all about, they wish to understand the new owners and their vision, they wish to understand what is in it for them. And, rightfully so, they wish to be spoken to.

For employees, this is traumatic, stressful and not easy to adapt to. Employees are critical stakeholders. While we do our best to take every stakeholder with us on these difficult and complex journeys, it is imperative that we recognise that employees are not simpletons. These are family heads, leaders in their communities and respectable people. It is time we look deeply into how these activities affect employees at home, at work and in their general lives.

I find it difficult to comprehend that employees are expected to execute their tasks as proficiently and as professionally as possible in difficult working conditions, knowing that their jobs may be on the line as the structure of their businesses change.

The mining industry is facing an increase in the number of fatalities, with 69 employees having lost their lives as a result of mine fatalities in 2021 compared to 47 at this time in 2020. It is deeply concerning.

The industry has worked hard to deal with mine fatalities. Several programmes have been implemented at individual mines. At Minerals Council SA level, the Khumbul’ekhaya campaign has been successful as we emphasise the theme of family and appreciating the role of the family in the lives of mine employees. A great deal of resources have been invested to deal with mine health and safety and, in fact, the focus has expanded to employee wellness as the industry continues to fight for the achievement of zero harm, which sounds elusive but is realistic.

We must work hard in identifying programmes that will assist employees during transactions to deal with stress and fatigue. Employees need to be communicated with regarding transactions and progress as plans are made to close the transactions.

Employees and their representatives are critical stakeholders and deserve to be taken along this journey.

• Teke is CEO of Seriti Resources.

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