Could holding mining bosses accountable for safety be the key to bringing down the death rate in South Africa’s mines?
Trade unions and Parliament’s portfolio committee on mineral resources believe so, and have called for legislation to be overhauled following a third mining disaster in two months.
This week’s accident at the Palabora Copper Mine in Limpopo left six employees dead after they were trapped underground when “a conveyer belt caught fire”. Two other incidents recently claimed the lives of six miners at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Khomanani and Kloof Ikamva mines.
According to deputy general secretary of occupational health and safety at Solidarity, Advocate Paul Mardon, the accident at Palabora “is not uncommon because of the constant friction that the conveyor belts are subjected to”. He said that, due to similar incidents in the past, the mineral resources department issued safety regulations requiring all conveyor belts to have fire-retardant textile-reinforced conveyor belting.
“However, at this stage, there are many questions that need to be answered,” said Mardon, in reference to whether the mine had adhered to the new safety regulations.
Mardon said the questions that needed to be answered were whether the conveyor belt that caught fire was a fire-retardant one, and if so, when last the particular conveyor belt had been inspected and serviced with a view to safety.
Responding to the deadly incident, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu called on the mineral resources department to amend Section 92 of the Mine Health and Safety Act, which refers to the penalties that could be applied when safety standards are not adhered to.
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa spokesperson, Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, said that the mining industry did not value the lives of African workers in the sector and that was why South Africa continued to see high numbers of fatalities in the industry.
“One death underground is far too many and we have seen shockingly high levels of fatalities in the sector in recent years,” she said.
“Once again the capitalist system has demonstrated its brutality against the working class.”
Numsa reiterated calls made by the South African Federation of Trade Unions for the Mine Health and Safety Act to be amended to allow for the prosecution of mine bosses if workers are killed underground.
“They must be held personally liable for lives lost underground. Perhaps if this is done, we will begin to see an end to fatalities.”
During a visit to the Limpopo mine on Tuesday, Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe assured the miners’ family and friends that his department would be instituting an inquiry into the accident and that amendments to the mining safety act would be addressed in detail at an upcoming mining summit.
“We have identified key questions that will receive special attention in the inquiry into the accident,” said Mantashe.
Accompanied by mine management and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, NUM and Solidarity, Mantashe agreed that “the key issue that needs to be addressed was the condition of the conveyer belt at the time of the deadly incident”.
In addition, Mardon pointed out that even without the amendment of the mining safety act, the current safety regulations required mines to have early alarm instruments underground to signal early warnings in case of fire.
“In this way, workers can be warned timeously to evacuate a danger zone in good time. It would appear as if this was not the case in this instance,” said Mardon.
Mantashe’s spokesperson, Nathi Shabangu, said that inspectors were at the mine and investigations will commence as soon as possible.
Chairperson of the portfolio committee on mineral resources, Sahlulele Luzipo and the chairperson of the select committee on land and mineral resources, Olifile Sefako also extended their heartfelt condolences to the families and colleagues of the deceased workers.
“The issue of mine health and safety has long reached a crisis proportions and requires desperate intervention. The department of mineral resources must urgently draft legislation that will hold mine bosses and managers accountable for any life lost on duty,” said Luzipo.
He said the committee wanted to know what measures the department was implementing in the interim, and was expecting written submissions from organised labour on how mine health and safety can be improved. The deadline for these submissions was Thursday.