Mining industry passes Covid-19 peak as foreign miners continue their return to South Africa

3rd September 2020 By: Donna Slater - Features Deputy Editor and Chief Photographer

About 75% of South Africa’s mining workforce has returned to work, reports the Minerals Council South Africa.

Minerals Council health head Dr Thuthula Balfour said during a weekly Covid-19 briefing, held on September 3, that, of a total mining workforce of 450 987 personnel, 338 264 have returned to work.

She added that this number continued to increase as more foreign national mineworkers came back to South Africa through restricted borders.

Minerals Council public affairs and transformation senior executive Tebello Chabana further noted that the mining industry, and South Africa in general, was starting to see the “light at the end of the tunnel” in terms of Covid-19 infections.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we have overcome the worst of the pandemic.”

He warned, however, that there was a risk of a potential second wave of infections and urged the industry to remain vigilant.

In terms of Covid-19 testing, to date, 47 121 Covid-19 tests have been performed, bringing to light 15 149 positive cases.

As at September 3, only 426 cases were still active, with 97% of those who had tested positive having recovered. The industry also recorded 161 Covid-19-related deaths.

Balfour also pointed out that Covid-19 testing in the mining industry remained above the national average, at 10.45%. The national average is about 6.27% and the global average about 6.71%

Chabana said that, before Covid-19 fully hit South African shores, it was evident from experiences elsewhere in the world that testing was an important tool in understanding the progress of the disease and the management thereof, and that testing resources were likely to be constrained.

“Early on, the Minerals Council South Africa led a process to understand testing approaches, capacity and to work closely with companies in this regard.”

He said that, as far as possible, the industry had aligned itself with National Institute of Communicable Diseases and the Department of Health's testing protocols.

However, Chabana added, even in consultation with experts, it was always going to be the case that the mining industry’s testing approach was going to be risk-based and more rigorous than many other industries.

“A very important driver of our approach was to ensure that companies were able to access testing capacity when and where they needed it,” he noted.

To this end, the council engaged with a range of testing laboratories to establish capacity and ensure access to expand its capacity.

“We are very confident that this approach has made a very substantial difference, not only to ensuring greater testing capacity for mining employees but also broadly in South Africa.”

Meanwhile, in terms of commodities and mining regions most affected by Covid-19, this continues to be platinum and the North West province, followed by gold and Mpumalanga, respectively.

As far as Covid-19-attributable deaths and age distribution are concerned, Balfour said only one person younger than 29 had died, while 21 people between the ages of 30 and 39 had died.

In the 40 to 49 age category, 37 deaths occurred; while the 50 to 59 category experienced the highest number of deaths, at 76. The 60 and older age group experienced ten deaths.

She added that the issue of protecting vulnerable employees was one that had been occupying the minds of the council and mining company CEOs. “Our primary aim as an industry is to save lives in line with our goal of zero harm.”

Meanwhile, Chabana stated that a second and very important part of the council’s approach had been to ensure collaboration between companies.

“It is in times like these that the industry’s strength in unity really comes to the fore. We have seen this on a multitude of fronts, from the establishment of quarantine facilities, to field hospitals, to the provision of community support.”