As South Africa’s confirmed coronavirus (Covid-19) cases hit 8 232 on 7 May, South Africa’s mining sector had been back at work for almost a week as it ramped up production under Level 4 lockdown restrictions which took effect on 1 May. With the Minerals Council of South Africa (MCSA) reporting 9 cases of Covid-19 on 28 April (mostly involving head office staff), it was clear that the return to work came with elevated risks and complexities as mines looked to secure the safety of workers. With many mine workers saying that they feared for their lives and were returning to work mainly to avoid losing their jobs, the last week has already seen two mines confirm that workers had tested positive, potentially fuelling a labour backlash. Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has also warned that government will shut down mining operations that do not comply with regulations, emphasising that miners’ lives would be prioritised over production.
Under SA’s strict lockdown initiated on 27 March, mining operations were ordered to scale down significantly, particularly deep-level mining, which is labour intensive, making social distancing almost impossible. At the same time, essential services supporting the sector, including security and related infrastructure, maintenance, water pumping, refrigeration and ventilation, were permitted to continue at reduced levels. Conditions were relaxed somewhat under a new risk-adjusted framework and multi-level lockdown that took effect at Level 4 on 1 May. Opencast mines were given the green light to return to 50% baseline production and to scale up to full-time employment and production capacity in line with cabinet’s directives, while other mining operations were permitted to scale up production to 50%. These allowances come with strict conditions that include providing transport for staff; adequate health and safety measures; rigorous screening and testing; and quarantine facilities. Amid concerns about the increased danger of rockfalls and likelihood of seismicity if a mine is left idle for too long, government also instructed mines to intensify monitoring and impact assessments of seismicity through the Council for Geoscience.
Amid increasing economic pressures in a country that was already in recession when Covid-19 hit, talk of a 16% economic contraction and unemployment rising to at least 40%, government had little choice but to send miners back to work. This comes amid general consensus that failure to open up the economy will further heighten already amplified risks of social instability as people grow more desperate for food, jobs are shed at an alarming rate, and many small and medium enterprises collapse.
However, South Africa’s heavily unionised labour sector will compound the challenges and risks attendant on a return to work, already strained by government’s increasingly evident capacity constraints and bureaucratic limitations. This is especially true in the mining sector where not all unions are on the same political page and some are threatening to sue mines if workers are not sufficiently protected. With emotions and political sensitivities already running high, confirmed new cases and reactive mine closures will fuel fear among miners and feed into the union narrative that miners’ lives at being put at risk for the sake of profits. Already, the Assore chrome mine suspended production after an employee tested positive as part of the Dwarsrivier Chrome Mine’s return to work protocols; while Northam Mine confirmed that an employee at its Zondereinde Mine in Limpopo tested positive. Such incidents are likely to increase, and mines and unions will need to find consensus on managing outbreaks, to prevent political concerns superseding both virus and production management efforts.
While the ANC’s Tripartite Alliance partner the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is publicly at least supporting government’s plans for now, it has also said “workers should down tools if they do not feel safe.” Unions outside of the federation are more demonstrably unhappy. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) are at the forefront of critique of government for putting worker’s lives at risk, with NUM’s north-eastern branch opposed to the reopening because of health and safety concerns. Generally distrustful of government regulations and mining company assurances, AMCU took the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) to court to force it to implement minimum health and safety standards to protect workers from the virus. These tensions were temporarily eased by a 1 May Labour Court ruling compelling mining companies to set and implement minimum health and safety standards, seen as a victory for AMCU and labour. The ruling calls for the publication of a national Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) after safety guidelines are published in the Government Gazette due on 18 May. As more consultations and challenges lie ahead, recent cases of the virus among mineworkers have emphasised the risks, giving credence to union arguments that mines cannot keep miners safe. Recent calls for mining companies to not only protect mineworkers but also mining communities, on the basis that miners return home from work, will add to the difficulties.
AMCU leader Joseph Mathunjwa has also accused mining bosses of ignoring the union’s call for the formation of a Covid-19 task team. Lack of consultation, a common point of contention between labour, government and the private sector, fuelled tensions again, with AMCU saying it won’t allow its members to report for work where it has not reviewed frameworks or ramp-up plans assuring the safety of its members.
While stakeholders like the MCSA have welcomed the phased ramping up of production as a first step to balancing the fight against the pandemic while rescuing the economy, the process itself will be cumbersome and politically volatile. While it took a mere 24 hours to send home over 450 000 workers on 27 March, rebooting the industry will take much longer and will be a far more onerous task.
Government and business will find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place for months to come, balancing the urgent need to protect economic activity and the livelihoods of workers with health and safety concerns. At the same time, the ANC’s political agenda will prove a persistent additional pressure point as the party will be at pains to keep labour, especially COSATU, onside ahead of looming local elections in 2021. In this context, signs of ongoing factionalism in the ruling party could inhibit consistency from government’s side and some compromises to placate labour seem inevitable. For now though, it seems there is at least a level of collective realisation that keeping the mining sector running is non-negotiable as the Covid-19 economic toll mounts. That the mining sector is well-placed to support government Covid-19 testing and containment efforts will also not be lost on decision-makers and, should common sense prevail, a productive symbiotic approach is possible.