Opinion: Covid-19 presents opportunity to rethink impact of mines on communities

22nd April 2020

Opinion: Covid-19 presents opportunity to rethink impact of mines on communities

WWF-SA's Khodani Mulaudzi and Louise Scholtz

The temporary closure and imminent reopening of mines across the country in the coming weeks provides an opportunity for mine bosses to assess and rethink their impact on communities, say Louise Scholtz and Khodani Mulaudzi of the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA).

In a small town like Postmasburg in the Northern Cape where mining is a cornerstone of the local economy, the lockdown has already hit hard due to high levels of household vulnerability and pre-existing challenges related to food security. The Northern Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry, among others, has voiced its opposition to employees and contractors returning to work from outside Postmasburg claiming that this constitutes a real health risk.

Despite undertakings to the contrary, some returnees have reportedly been allowed to recommence work without being screened or tested. Mining companies in the area have made significant commitments, availing their medical facilities to infected community members and supporting public health systems to prevent Covid-19 contagion within the broader community. However, it remains to be seen whether the real risk of contagion will be successfully managed.

The installation of some form of preventative tracking and tracing mine-worker contacts to understand their network of primary and secondary human interactions in the event of infection would seem to be necessary if the resumption of mining can be justified from a public health perspective.

Reports like these raise key questions about the broader responsibility of mining companies to surrounding communities, and not only during the pandemic.  Because of the urgency to respond to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in mining towns across South Africa, there can be little doubt that these companies can, and arguably should play a critical role in supporting some of the measures needed to reduce vulnerability. Specifically, they can support efforts to ensure greater access to water and sanitation, support measures to maintain household food security and redirect corporate social investment (CSI) and social and labour plan (SLP) funding to Covid-19 lockdown mitigation.

While some will argue that mining companies should not be relied upon, nor position themselves as providers of public goods and services, the pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink the role of mining companies in the communities affected by both their operations and subsequent closure.

This brings into focus the mines’ SLPs and concerns about the ineffectiveness of legislation and regulations governing mine closure and rehabilitation. SLPs are widely regarded as being largely ineffective and have, in several instances, become a legislated means by which mines are pulled into taking responsibility for municipal service delivery. While the most recent iteration of the Mining Charter permits regional approaches to the formulation of SLPs, this alone will not be enough to ensure their effectiveness. Serious questions have been raised about the potential of SLPs to drive and support interventions that can ensure the long-term sustainability of mining affected communities after the life of the mine. 

Mine closure and rehabilitation remains a challenge in South Africa despite  extensive legislation governing these processes. While new mining licences continue to be issued every year, old, derelict and ownerless mines continue to pose a hazard to communities and the environment. Recent mine closure processes have been fraught with challenges and often ultimately leave communities stranded without alternative forms of livelihoods, unlocking a chain of physical decay, and socio-economic degradation.

If South Africa is to meet its climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement, it needs to rapidly reduce dependence on coal generated electricity, meaning that mine closures are inevitable. Under this scenario, Mpumalanga, with four coal mining dependent local municipalities – eMalahleni, Steve Tshwete, Msukaligwa, and Govan Mbeki – is particularly at risk. Mine closures would lead to large-scale job losses and the spectre of economic contraction and social dislocation such as that experienced on the Free State Goldfields.

South Africa has a very poor history of managing mine downscaling or mitigating the negative economic and social consequences of mine closure by effecting structural economic change. There are few examples of the successful development of sustainable substitution economies post-mining. Just as happened with the reformulation of instruments such as SLPs, new ways need to be found in the aftermath of the pandemic to comprehensively ameliorate the negative impacts of mine closure. Ensuring that the adverse impacts of South Africa’s energy transition are mitigated through policy and fiscal measures that will build resilient post-mining economies and less vulnerable communities is essential. However, case studies from elsewhere clearly show that while Government must take the lead on this, it will require collaborative action by all key actors, with the mines playing a critical role in the process. 

While mines arguably have the capabilities to manage the requirements regarding employee health including screening, testing and quarantine,  the Postmasburg example points to concerns relating to  employees returning from their homes across the country and bringing the threat of infection to small towns that are ill-equipped to deal with the potential health crisis.  

Mine employees have the benefit of pro-active unions that will hold their bosses to account should they fail to afford their workers the protection that they have promised, but mine-host communities will remain highly vulnerable to any negative impacts associated with the initial closure and subsequent part resumption of mining. To this point, it is critical that mine employers use the inescapable opportunity of the pandemic closure and reopening to critically assess and rethink their role within broader mine affected communities.

In the post-Covid-19 pandemic period there should not be a return to “business as usual” when it comes to the way mining companies support processes of community and local economic development. The time is ripe to reconsider how the ongoing work on the Just Transition lays the foundation to engage with the challenge to develop a climate smart and equitable post-mining economy and the potential of the SLP as an instrument through which mining companies contribute to this end.  The Covid-19 crisis must be the catalyst for this change.

Findings from a series of research colloquiums hosted by WWF-SA and Mining Dialogues 360° are included in this article. These dialogues are part of on an ongoing programme to identify and unlock opportunities to support more effective mine closure and rehabilitation efforts through more coherent, better structured applied research, as well as developing praxis to unlock community responses to mine closures that support a just transition.