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South Africa to shut mines for three weeks in Covid-19 battle

Mines say stringent measures are in place to protect employees from transmission of the virus

Mines in South Africa, the source of most of the world’s platinum group metals (PGMs), chrome and manganese, will shut for three weeks as the country goes into a lockdown to stem the infection rate from the Covid-19 virus.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday night the country would begin the lockdown from midnight on Thursday until April 16.

“Companies whose operations require continuous processes such as furnaces, underground mine operations, will be required to make arrangements for care and maintenance to avoid damage to their continuous operations,” Ramaphosa said.

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SA’s mines employ 450,000 people and support large numbers of supply and services businesses and employees in SA.

Roger Baxter, CEO of the Minerals Council SA, whose members account for 90% of the country’s mineral production, said the speech was being “digested”.

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There were a number of questions arising from the speech, like whether coal mines from which state-owned power utility Eskom secures all its coal, would remain open and if it would only be the mines. Under the definition of essential industries, energy is classified as such.

Harmony Gold, the largest producer of SA’s gold, said it was putting its mines into care and maintenance and the shutdown would negatively affect its 1.4-million ounce production target for 2020 and its earnings.

“This is an unprecedented time in the history of the mining industry and our country. The health and safety of all South Africans must take precedence and, as such, we are committed to making decisions that will ensure the continued viability of our company,” said Harmony CEO Peter Steenkamp.

SA’s companies have attempted to keep their labour-intensive mines open, sending tens of thousands of people underground daily while facing reduced productivity and higher costs to keep their workers safe.

“It’s crazy times,” said one executive, pointing out there was enough time to put mines onto care and maintenance. But another executive said that the logistics of sending tens of thousands of miners back home were a nightmare.

Globally, about 15,328 people have died and 350,536 have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University in the US, which is keeping track of the spread.

SA’s mines have continued working to date and none have so far reported any confirmed case of Covid-19.

All companies enforce stringent health and safety measures to prevent an outbreak and transmission of the disease, which could potentially spread like wildfire in the cramped conditions where employees are crammed into large steel boxes and dropped kilometres underground into confined workspaces.

Impala Platinum ordered “significant quantities” of thermal scanners, vitamin supplements, flu vaccines, gloves, face masks, oxygen and chronic medication as far back as February to prevent the disease, said spokesperson Johan Theron.

“Productivity has already been affected, given the risk to lives and livelihoods and related fundamental changes we have instituted. While the business impact is still relatively small today, it will escalate dramatically over time when more extreme countermeasures are introduced,” he said.

“Obviously we’re still in the early stages of Covid-19, but it’s already clear that if we don’t get a firm handle on it soon the impact on us, the industry and global economy will be catastrophic.”

Sibanye, the world’s largest PGM miner and a major source of SA gold, employs 80,000 people but has PGM operations in the US that will remain in operation, setting it apart from its SA peers.

“The nature of our business means that large groups of employees may gather in areas in the workplace,” it said on Monday.

“To that extent, we have put in place personal and workplace hygiene programmes to reduce this risk. This includes making soaps and other disinfectants available, screening of employees and contractors, adopting protocols about biometrics and enforcement of sick leave for employees who present with flu-like symptoms,” it said. At its US operations, Sibanye has removed contract workers from its site, slowing development of its new Blitz mine, while the maker of the mills to be used in expansion of the concentrator complex has said it cannot honour the contract.

“Our US PGM operations are a ‘critical infrastructure industry’ as defined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, with PGMs essential components of many chemical, medical and biochemical applications,” Sibanye said, adding it would do all it could to keep production uninterrupted.

In the gold sector, similar preventive measures are under way.

“The health and wellbeing of all our employees remains a top priority for us. Allied to this is business continuity as far as is possible and responsible, to ensure people’s livelihoods,” said Harmony Gold spokesperson Marian van der Walt.

Harmony, SA’s largest gold producer, has identified employees at the highest risk, including those who have not tested whether they have tuberculosis or HIV, those on antiretroviral medication for HIV, and employees with medical conditions.

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