Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

We are only 178 days into the year and already 21 workers have died at Sibanye-Stillwater’s mines. That’s a staggering number.

It’s hard to imagine many jurisdictions that would tolerate having in its midst a company in which an employee was killed at his or her place of work virtually every week.

Neither should we. And here we are not talking about an insignificant player, but the biggest company in an industry where SA used to be the leading global player.

Gold mining, which dates back to the 19th century and is probably the most important contributor to the fact that about 10-million people now call the city of Johannesburg home, has long lost its status as the most important player in the South African economy.

For decades SA was synonymous with gold, and the country was the largest producer in the world. We are now barely in the top 10 and employment levels, at around 116,000, are down almost 70% from what they were in the mid-1990s.

The country was barely a feature when AngloGold, once the dominant South African player, discussed its growth plans in May, looking further afield, from Mali to Australia.

That one company accounts for almost half the fatalities in 2018 is rightly ringing alarm bells, with the chairman of Parliament’s mineral resources portfolio committee, Sahlulele Luzipo, calling for Sibanye to be placed under curatorship. Who can argue against the view that the deaths have now reached 'disastrous proportions?'  

That may partly explain Sibanye’s elevation to the nation’s biggest gold producer. Other companies are moving away from deep-level, expensive and dangerous mines, and into mines in other parts of the world that are more mechanised and shallower.

SA’s mining industry, with its intimate association with apartheid and colonial-era exploitation and dispossession, has a long history of callousness and disregard for the well-being of the people who risk their lives going underground.

It is an industry in which the many have long laboured and died in inhumane conditions, while the few became very rich on the back of that suffering.

So to a casual reader, the constant flow of news of deaths might seem natural and only what should be expected.

But that would actually be a misreading of the situation and does an injustice to the progress that’s been made since 1994, when close to 500 people a year died in SA’s mines.

Bloomberg reported late in 2017 that fatalities reached 81 from January to November, noting this was the first increase in more than a decade.

With three working days before the end of the quarter, the total for 2018 stands at 46, meaning that if the fatality rates are maintained, there will be a consecutive year of growth.

That one company accounts for almost half the fatalities in 2018 is rightly ringing alarm bells, with the chairman of Parliament’s mineral resources portfolio committee, Sahlulele Luzipo, calling for Sibanye to be placed under curatorship.

Who can argue against the view that the deaths have now reached "disastrous proportions?"

In a statement posted on its website, Sibanye described the latest incident, which took place at the Khomanani mine, as "perplexing", saying it happened after the worker entered a scraper path "for reasons still to be determined".

It is slightly more than perplexing, and shareholders have noticed, pushing the company’s shares down about 11% on Tuesday, the biggest drop in more than four months.

That would indicate that they regard Luzipo’s comments as more than just political noise making, and they do not auger well for a company that is already under pressure from lower gold prices.

Clearly, management’s actions so far, including the appointment of a new safety boss, have been far from adequate.

It will need to do something quickly, otherwise the political pressure for something far more drastic will be impossible to resist, and its stockholders are already getting the message.