SAFTU statement on the decision to reopen the mines and wine-exporting farms

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), note with concern the attempts by the Minerals Council and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) to reopen mines to 50% of production, despite the March 15 declaration of a National State of Disaster, which limits public gatherings to 50 people or less.

SAFTU fully support of the letter written to you by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and the statement issued and the Labour Court challenging of the decision to give concessions to the mining industry by Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).The South African Policing Union (SAPU) issued a statement which we fully support raising an issue that the police are now confused by the continuous changes of the regulations.

The government’s own virology advisor Professor Salim Karim a week ago suggested that new daily infections be limited to below 90. That rate has soared to more than 200 since then. Reopening the mines and wine-exporting farms would greatly inflate the daily infection levels and prevent a flattening of the curve which is required to reduce the pressure on the county’s stretched medical services.

Wine exporting is not an essential service! It is unjustifiable to close the local liquor selling stores while allowing wine magnates to continue sell wine to the European countries. We are happy that this decision has subsequently been reversed.

The government’s legitimacy will continue to be questioned, if it continues to apply rules selectively and inconsistently! In fact, it is government actions that have become the biggest threat. The whole spirt of sacrifice has been undermined if others use their proximity to government to get exemptions that the government will not extend to others, such as the manufacturing sector.

The mines were placed under care and maintenance at the start of the lockdown and allowed to retain essential staff during the lockdown. It is therefore surprising that the Minister of Minerals and Energy, Minister Gwede Mantashe suggests that mines can only be cared for and maintained when they are at 50% production.

Noting that the 2012 strike at the Lonmin mines lasted six months and the strike had no impact on ground movement, gas emissions or seismicity at those mines, the minister’s statement is clearly without foundation.

Once a mine is constructed, it actually has minimal fixed costs other than water, electricity and labour. The mines also pay their costs in much devalued South African Rands and make their profits in Euros, Pounds and Dollars.

As it is, there is really no market for most minerals at the moment given the global lockdown, except gold. Pushing more minerals onto the global markets will simply further collapse global prices for minerals like platinum. The mines can offset the lockdown by trying to get rid of global mineral stockpiles instead.

Minister Mantashe’s decision to open mines will reverse all the gains of the lockdown as social distancing is impossible in a mine. This decision puts profits before people, human rights and the environment.

Recall that South Africa’s minerals are a source of our maldevelopment, because 75% of the value chain of our minerals is realised in London, New York, Zurich, Frankfurt, Shanghai and Tokyo. So even though minerals make up 45% of our exports, mining only contributes 7% to our GDP.

Therefore, reopening the mines will just feed the global glut in minerals and cause mineral prices to free fall. The first Great Global Depression of the 21st Century is looming before us, yet we are driving into it like a brakeless automobile into a wall.

The Minister of Mining and Energy must understand that for mineworkers, testing on return does not mean that workers once tested will now never be infected. Workers on the living-out allowance live mainly in densely-populated informal settlements near the mines. So will they be tested for COVID-19 daily on return to work?

The minister suggests that shifts be decreased from three to two to allow the workspace and cages to be sanitised. From his own days as a mineworker, this minister should know that his strategy will still not allow for social distancing or prevent the spread of the disease as the cages will still be packed.

The rock drills work with water pressure. Many mines buy semi-treated sewage or brown water to operate the drills. The spray from the drills covers the drill operators, who often operate without masks or protective clothing. Even where protective clothing is given, the extreme heat underground forces workers to take off their protective clothing and masks.

Many of the mineworkers went back to the Eastern Cape for the lockdown so they will be travelling back via taxi to the mines. Once back at the mines, they re-enter the informal settlements and hostels where they stay. This virus, having left the international airports to explore South Africa, will now learn how to catch a taxi. Like HIV/AIDS before it, the virus will float along our transport routes, like streams and then rivers that carry this disease across the country.

Reporting for work every morning, mineworkers are subjected to a breathalyzer test, which in turn could spread the virus. From there, they are packed into cages going down, spreading the virus. From there, they work in production teams, spreading the virus. They work at deep levels in ultra-hot conditions. They emerge after the shift into the ever-cooler night air of early winter and risk getting colds, the flu, pneumonia and now Covid-19.

Are those who are vulnerable the fathers, uncles or brothers of the mine bosses? No. Since the 1860s in Kimberley, the fathers, brothers and uncles of black Southern Africans have been sacrificed on the altar of super-profits.

Just as in the older era of TB and silicosis, our workers’ lungs are at risk now, and again, so too their very lives. The utter selfishness of the mine bosses and their government is absolutely shocking. The decision to resume mining will certainly push the new infections well into the hundreds if not thousands per day.

In Marikana, when Rowland Shaft starts operating, the people in the nearby communities only have water around midnight, when the pressure of mine consumption reduces sufficiently to reach their taps. Allowing this mine to become operational will deprive the people of Wonderkop and Ngakane informal settlement of a regular supply of water, and thus the chance to engage in frequent hand-washing. A similar situation prevails in Mogolakwena and in other water-scarce areas of the country.

We also know that once the mines and smelters start ramping up, Eskom load shedding is bound to ensue, further compromising the health and safety of South Africans everywhere.

We demand that

  • the lockdown remains in place, and that mines, other than coal mines supplying Eskom (as is currently the case), are not exempted;
  • the government puts a moratorium on retrenchments of mine workers;
  • that government decrees that mineworkers remain in lockdown with full pay;
  • that government insists that mine health facilities be open to nearby mine communities;
  • that government guarantees adequate lifeline supplies of water and electricity to adjacent mine communities;
  • that government waits until the peak of the pandemic is well passed before considering the reopening of mines.

We are concerned that SAFTU, our affiliated unions and AMCU are not being consulted on matters so directly affecting their members. We have been sidelined and do not form part of the National Command Center or the National Economic Development and Labour Council, where we would be raising these concerns instead of writing this letter to your office.

We call on the President to grant union officials the status of supplying essential services. All companies which are declared essential services have not yet offered adequate decision-making representation to their workers. There are huge numbers of employers cutting corners and refusing to comply with the regulations. In the process, these employers trample on workers’ rights. Union offices are closed, and these workers have no one to turn to. We anticipate that this is going to be worse as the economy gets re-opened.


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