Death of SA Mining: Facts, Fiction And Fantasy

Nothing grabs attention in the headlines like ‘Death’, ‘Destruction’, ‘Debt’ and of course ‘Mining’. Why these four words are so regularly used and misused so often by the government, unions and the press – is testament to their success in getting the masses’ attention – and reaction. And that reaction is always emotional and often... Read more »

Nothing grabs attention in the headlines like ‘Death’, ‘Destruction’, ‘Debt’ and of course ‘Mining’. Why these four words are so regularly used and misused so often by the government, unions and the press – is testament to their success in getting the masses’ attention – and reaction. And that reaction is always emotional and often violent. That is a problem.

And the problem gets worse as more and more people and institutions become conditioned to thinking death, debt and destruction ‘are’ synonymous with mining: and especially underground mining. But how true is this? Not very.

In January 2014, South Africa had an official population of 53m people and there were about 540 000 deaths countrywide during the previous 12 months. Of those deaths, 112 of them were in the mining industry, of which 51 were in the gold mines. Now the mines themselves all say that ‘one death in mining is one too many’. And they have done an admirable job of improving safety in virtually all respects on ‘all’ our mines, especially the gold mines, for over the past 100 years.

And the statistics bear that out. Viewing SA’s gold mining industry – where most of the country’s mining deaths occurred during the last century – one can see the huge gains that have been made.

In 1910, nearly 1000 men died in South Africa’s gold mines – a horrible number, but not that much out of line with the fatality rate in many of the west’s leading economic powers of the time, such as US, England, Germany and many others. South Africa took dramatic action after 1910 and brought deaths in gold mines down below 400 a year in the next 10 years. As SA’s gold mine employment doubled – from 200 000 men in 1920 to 400 000 in 1940, the death ‘rate’ stayed flat. However, because employment doubled, total deaths did rise to nearly 750 by 1940. So ‘more’ safety action was taken and as gold mine employment grew to 530 000 people by 1987, deaths were lowered to below 600 – still unacceptably high and thus justifying more effort on all fronts by ‘all’ parties.

Today there are less than 150 000 people employed in SA’s gold mines and deaths are about 50 a year. That means today South Africa is producing nearly 110 000 oz/y per fatality, compared to 55 000 oz/y in the 1960’s when grades were 50% higher than today, and compared to the 1920’s – 1940’s when 20 000 oz/y were produced per fatality – and at grades 2–3 times higher than today’s!

Now this is incredible headway that was made through huge efforts and costs by the mines and men working on them. And while 50 deaths a year is still too many – it is barely half the official deaths due to initiation practices in South Africa in some years– it is barely half the number of students killed at school in some years and it is far, far less, than the people killed by the police in some years– 932 people in 2012. One eighteenth of the amount to be exact!

Life, especially productive and useful life, is about proper allocation of resources – proper allocation and use of one’s time, energy and priorities. Life is finite. Our time, resources and ability to work and live are finite and so ‘have’ to be allocated correctly to yield the best result.

Are government or the unions allocating their resources, their rhetoric, their massive additional regulations, time and effort towards mining companies in the most productive, cost-effective, highest return avenues possible? The billions of rands in costs caused by additional legislation requirements, work stoppages and operational procedures, equipment and constraints? Is there not some kind of balance as to how that money, effort and time could save more lives if deployed more effectively?

Tuberculosis killed 60 000 people in SA last year, on top of influenza and pneumonia killing about 40 000. Not forgetting, intestinal diseases almost 30 000. And non-natural causes almost 50 000! Over 16 000 people were murdered last year. That is ‘not’ a natural death – even in this country. That means SA murders as many people every day as our gold mines lose in a year. And that many again survived ‘attempted’ murders! It is estimated that firearms were responsible for over 40% of those numbers.

And SA’s road kill is also nearly 16 000 deaths a year. That is 140 times higher than total deaths in ‘all’ our mines in a year. Not 140% higher – 140 times higher! And every year too! Is there even one manager in this country – who could not save many ‘many’ more lives – by taking R1bn/y from current mine safety spend and apply it towards gun or traffic control?

If guns are responsible for over 40% of the 16 000 people murdered each year and taxis responsible for 40% of the 16 000 road kills a year. Is there not a case to be made for better allocation of government and union legislation, resources, enforcement and fury than continually beating the mines until they ‘all’ close and put the last few 100 000 employees out on the street – where their chances of death are much ‘much’ higher – instead of them working productively in the mines every day, learning skills, earning good wages and helping the country grow and prosper?

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