It is not surprising to see that South Africa’s mining output has plummeted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated restrictions. While this is disturbing in a nation in which mining is crucial to the economy, there is no doubt that the situation would be much worse if the government had not recognised this importance by allowing open pit mining to operate at full capacity from May 1 and underground mines at 50% capacity from that date which has now been extended to 100%.
South Africa, the world’s biggest producer of platinum and chrome and a leading producer of gold and diamonds, entered a strict lockdown in late March, forcing mines around the country to shut down temporarily.
Statistics South Africa said this had seen total mining output fall 47.4% year-on-year in April after contracting 18% in March following rises in February and January. Platinum group metal production fell 62% in April, gold output was 59.6% lower and South Africa’s iron ore fell 68.7% during the month.
It was the biggest monthly decline in output since at least April 1981 and comes at a time when the nation’s mining industry can least afford it owing to labour issues, volatile markets and growing mine costs.
Mining industry body Minerals Council South Africa has estimated that mining production could fall by 8-10% this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There have been some widely reported statements that the mining industry is becoming South Africa’s new COVID-19 epicentre or hotbed, particularly in the North West where there has been an increase in cases reported. As of June 7, there were a total of 523 cases in the province with the Minerals Council revealing that the mining industry accounted for 198 confirmed cases. At that time the council revealed that SA’s mining industry had recorded 572 COVID-19 cases with Gauteng having 294 cases followed by North West and then Limpopo with 75.
The council denies that the industry is an ‘epicentre’, arguing that there is no greater concentration of the pandemic than in other sectors, with rigorous screening and constant testing helping to minimise the spread of the virus among miners.
In a statement, the council said: “There are more than 230,000 miners currently back at work. Each and every one of these mineworkers was screened on their first return to work post the hard lockdown, and every worker is screened for the virus prior to every shift he or she works.”
The council also argues that the narrative that mines are a hotbed of COVID-19, has led to increased scrutiny on mining operations and resulted in more tests. More tests are likely to result in more confirmed cases, inflating the number of affected miners beyond the average that would be expected.
“As an epidemiological phenomenon, it is also no different from trends seen in other workplaces and in particular communities,” said the Minerals Council. “Clusters of infections occur in many different places. Further, mines are part of communities and communities are part of mines. It is likely that those clusters similarly exist in the communities surrounding those particular mining operations; the difference, of course, is that employees have been tested, surrounding community members have not been.
“As it is, we would suggest that the intensive daily screening of mineworkers, and the thorough contact tracing and testing of contacts, means that the overall incidence is no higher than the population as a whole, and is more likely lower, especially given the intensive hygiene and social distancing measures required to be implemented at every workplace.”
The figures go to show that there is no cause for complacency when it comes to the deadly virus and that all parties must continue to work together.
Yolanda Torrisi is Chairperson of The African Mining Network and comments on African mining issues and the growing global interest in the continent. Contact:firstname.lastname@example.org