Gwede Mantashe under fire over controversial plan to reopen mines

Impala Platinum Mine. Picture: Lerato Sejake
Impala Platinum Mine. Picture: Lerato Sejake

Minerals and Energy Minister at the centre of a controversial call by miner Implats for workers to resume operations after lockdown regulations were relaxed this week

Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe is facing the wrath of a union he once led, which is accusing him of pushing mining operations to resume despite the lockdown restrictions.

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) general secretary David Sipunzi said the union was “totally opposed” to the reopening of mines and questioned government’s decision to relax Covid-19 coronavirus regulations in the mining industry.

“What expertise is he [Mantashe] applying [by assuming] that if mines operate at 50% capacity, there’s no chance of Covid-19 spreading? In a real sense, that size of operational capacity isn’t conducive to social distancing,” Sipunzi said.

He explained that the 50% operational capacity “did not reflect half of the workforce, but definitely meant that more than half of the workforce would be required to return to work”.

Amendment of regulations

Following the announcement of the amendment of the regulations on Thursday, Mantashe said: “We’re identifying a risk, particularly in the deep mines … If they’re left alone for a long time, the stability of the ground gets tampered with. Gases accumulate and you may actually be confronted with disasters such as methane gas and other gases, the prevalence of seismicity and rockfall.”

The minister said these were some of the reasons mineworkers were being allowed back to work and to “actually deal with the question of ramping up production in those mines [and] minimising the risk of accidents and disasters, [as well as] sustaining infrastructure of production in the mines”.

However, according to Sipunzi, not working at 50% had never previously been raised as a possible contributor to long-lasting damage or accidents in the mines.

Sipunzi said Mantashe was making these excuses because he “wanted to kick start production”.

If he [Mantashe] is taking the financial health of mining companies seriously, we take our members’ health [just as] seriously and we will continue to resist calls such as this one, even if the companies are granted permission by the department
David Sipunzi, NUM general secretary

“We want our members to work in a safe environment. If he [Mantashe] is taking the financial health of mining companies seriously, we take our members’ health [just as] seriously and we will continue to resist calls such as this one, even if the companies are granted permission by the department,” he said.

He added that his union would be meeting with Mantashe on Friday to seek clarity on the amendment of the lockdown regulations affecting the mining industry.

Meanwhile, the expansion of mining operational capacity in the middle of the pandemic has escalated mineworkers’ anxiety at a time of great uncertainty.

Thousands of mineworkers at various mining companies for economic reasons are likely to lose their jobs as a result. Mineworkers find themselves between a rock and a hard place – either return to work and risk infection, or stay at home and face retrenchments or dismissal – while the NUM fights for a clarity on these issues from the employers.

The union said it felt as if its members were not taken into consideration, with the department taking decisions without its input. Mining houses had also not briefed the NUM satisfactorily on how they would prevent the virus from spreading in the mining environment. The union cited lift cages as particularly risky spaces in which miners were crammed while going underground.

Amcu threatens a legal challenge

Meanwhile, in a letter by the union’s attorneys Richard Spoor Inc to Mantashe on Thursday, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) sought clarity on the “risk posed to mineworkers compelled to return to work”.

It said the amendment of lockdown regulations relating to mining did “not adequately address how mining companies [would] effectively mitigate the risk of mine workers contracting Covid-19”.

“Beyond requiring testing, the regulations provide no binding obligations on mining companies to protect mineworkers from Covid-19 whatsoever.

Read: World’s deepest mines to take weeks to reopen after SA Covid-19

“We, therefore, reiterate the need for a national standard which binds all mining companies … It is essential for the regulations to provide clarity on what is expected by mining companies to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for workers,” the union said.

Amcu challenged the department to get the chief inspector of mines to “issue appropriate guidelines for Covid-19 and direct all employers to prepare and implement codes of practice in line with the guidelines”.

“Workers may not be compelled to return to work until binding regulations are in place for the management of Covid-19. Failure to do so will compel us to approach the relevant court for urgent relief,” Amcu said in the letter.

Mystery around Implats’ return to work

Mantashe appeared unhappy when asked why Impala Platinum (Implats) had recalled its workers earlier this week.

The company was singled out in many media reports, although other mining companies are also believed to have recalled workers, claiming to have been exempted from the lockdown regulations by the department of minerals and energy.

Some mineworkers reporting for duty at Implats were sent back by the police, resulting in the company suspending its plan to resume operations.

Implats spokesperson Johan Theron said a subsequent apology issued to the workers was “not specifically [for having called] them back, but for the disruption and confusion [they experienced] in being stopped by the police and prevented from returning to work”.

Mantashe appeared unhappy when asked why Impala Platinum (Implats) had recalled its workers earlier this week

Mantashe said there had been a “lot of confusion about the letter sent by Impala to its employees to come to work”, adding that “it caused [further] confusion in the industry for employers, workers and government”.

He said he regarded the incident as “more of an irritation than an issue that should be used to measure the reaction of the industry on this matter”.

Asked why Implats appeared to be exempted from the regulations placed on other mining houses, spokesperson Ayanda Shezi said: “Impala was permitted to operate only up to 50% capacity. That was the permission granted by the department.”

This was a contradiction as the 50% operations capacity was only announced on Thursday. It is understood that some mining companies have been applying since late last month to be exempted from the national lockdown.

The regulations stipulated that mining operations are to be scaled down significantly, with only essential services supporting the sector – including security and related infrastructure, maintenance, water pumping and ventilation – permitted to operate.

Theron maintained that the company had first applied for permission to perform activities specifically aimed at care and maintenance of all critical infrastructure.

Implats explains

“Following on from this, we applied to expand these activities to also include limited operational activities at a reduced rate, subject to specific precautionary measures, specifically aimed to secure the operation and ensure a safe and orderly return to work when the lockdown restrictions are lifted,” Theron said.

“Implats first applied for essential service permission on March 27 and subsequently applied to have those services expanded on April 6.

“Before the call for some workers to return, we had 7% of our normal workforce at work. That peaked at below 20% this week.”

On how the company was planning to handle the workers’ and curbing the spread of Covid-19, Theron said beyond screening and testing, other precautionary measures were in place.

“These include improved hygiene, restrictions on the amount of work performed, social distancing at work [as well as while travelling to and from work], the provision of personal protective equipment, and screening and testing procedures.

“To this end, we’ve installed additional wash basins, appropriately spaced to ensure social distancing, and markers in key traffic areas to ensure a safe distance is kept between employees.”

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