The impact of government’s response to Covid-19 on mineworkers in South Africa

29 Mar 2020
29 Mar 2020

The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has taken a terrible grip of South Africa and the entire world. Its effects permeate the normal functioning of every sector, city and down to every household. Let me paint you a picture of my family home in the wake of the declaration of a state of disaster in South Africa:

I am sitting in my mother’s lounge in Johannesburg in Gauteng, the most stricken province by covid-19. It is late and I have a crumpled-up surgical mask in my bag, having just landed from Cape Town. We await the Honourable President Cyril Ramaphosa’s second national address on the covid-19 containment measures, refreshing the webpage every five minutes.

It is nothing we did not expect. Hearing the declaration of a state of disaster sat hollow in our hearts. At this point we feel safe. We can maintain a healthy routine of washing our hands regularly, keeping distance from each other in our rooms. However, most South Africans are not in the same position.

The address was written for us, calming our nerves. We, the audience, the upper and middle classes, were reassured of economic stability and physical safety. What does this disaster really mean for the most vulnerable people? Falling in this category are mineworkers.

Mineworkers represent an incredibly vulnerable portion of society due the nature of their work. are often migrant labourers, living far from their families on rental/lease arrangements in the surrounding mining communities. Demographically, mineworkers are predominately from historically disadvantaged groups, coming from underprivileged circumstances.

The story of mineworkers features countless concerns, akin to many workers in other industries. It is important then to see the actions of various stakeholders involved and how the number one concern expressed by the President’s address, ‘supporting the vulnerable’, has been put into action amidst covid-19.

Mineworkers carry the South African economy in their hands and on their backs. They work in the most excruciating environment, doing work which frequently leads to injuries, disease and sometimes death. They are often crammed into public transport, travelling far distances and entering spaces with poor ventilation systems. An ill-ventilated, over-crowded dark space is a cause for concern. On top of the work, the housing set up for mineworkers is often cramped, coupled with poor sanitation and little privacy.

An industry which has been confronted with HIV and AIDS, Tuberculosis and silicosis in the course of their work might feel prepared. However, covid-19 is a unique virus that the sector has never seen before. Prevention, mitigation and support will require the mining industry to go beyond the standard call-of-duty of an employer, and government will need to provide guidance.

So, what is the South African government doing in response to the covid-19 pandemic and what does this mean for mineworkers? Most mines have significantly scaled down. Mineworkers have been sent home, and mines have limited their activities to processes that would too costly to restart. Minister of mineral resources and energy, Mr. Gwede Mantashe, addressed the industry’s response to the lockdown, affirming their commitment to uphold workers’ health and safety. The minister proposed various measures for implementation, most of which have been mirrored into most companies’ usual practice.

These measures are:

  1. Scale labour intensive operations down significantly.
  2. Essential services (water pumping, ventilation, security infrastructure) will continue.
  3. Coal mines to remain operational at a diminished capacity.
  4. Services to communities will continue (example given is waste supply).
  5. Travel is restricted.
  6. Minerals Council has committed its health infrastructure to support government.

The mining industry currently provides employment for 450 000 people, 44 200 people are employed in the coal industry alone. It is unclear how these measure will support the 400 000 plus workers who are sent home to informal settlements. The measures stop workers from being in a densely crowded work environment. The measures serve to limit the the risks of workers getting ill on the job, and diminishing the mine’s potential liability. However, when it comes to protecting those more vulnerable, the measures seem to protect the mine more than the mineworker.

To improve its response in accommodating mineworkers, South African mining companies can learn a few lessons from other exemplary jurisdictions. For instance, in Alaska, the mining company, Red Dog Mines, has been providing its mineworkers with hotel accommodation for two weeks quarantine before returning to their communities. The company is also providing their employees allowances for daily expenses. In Australia, The mining company BHP dedicated a $50 million fund to assist health services in communities based around the companies’ mines. In South Africa, Sibanye-Stillwater has provided clearer measures to assist mineworkers with health practices whilst at work but have not considered dedicated funds and self-isolation accommodations for their workers.

In painful contrast, we see these accommodations severely lacking in the context of the developing world. Mining companies often hold more public power than the state. Companies are now faced with the concomitant public responsibility to step in and ensure provisions are made for mine workers. This would include self-imposed shutdowns and care for their workers. Mineworker that are now vulnerable to financial insecurity and the risks of spreading the virus to their families, require the assistance of the large mining houses.

The Zimbabwean Allied and Diamond Workers Union (ZIDAWU) appealed to the government to pay attention to the vulnerability of mineworkers. The two diamond mines, Anjin and Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company (ZCDC) operating in the Marange Diamond fields run operations with overloaded busses, poor living conditions and concerns of discrimination between the Zimbabwean worker and their Chinese counterparts have been raised.

The context of a developing country and the impacts that a virus such as covid-19 can have is disastrous. Support must be given to the world’s nations most plundered. Zimbabwe is an example of internal plunder and external influences.

Insofar as the Mineral Councils approach is concerned, reality is that there is no hope for anything good. The Council’s concern is more on the economic well-being of the mines and less on the mineworkers’ health and safety. Roger Baxter, the CEO of the Minerals Council SA, speaks about imaginative solutions to address the current issues the industry is facing. The solutions are based on ‘ensuring mines have sufficient staff and capital to make sure mines are adequately cared for …

To make sure mines are adequately cared for does not encourage confidence that mineworkers will be duly considered. Not to mention the degrading reference to ‘sufficient staff and capital’. I wanted to see what was going to be done to facilitate mineworkers livelihoods during covid-19 and their potential desire to self-isolation from their families, maintaining their health and security. How will the spaces in the mines be disinfected? What is the contextual analysis and how will people be taken ‘adequately cared for...’? The measures have so far been to check temperatures as the mineworkers enter the premises, provide gloves and hand out surgical masks

What now?

When all is said and done, the approaches from the powerful stakeholders (government and companies) are ‘top-down’ approaches. They are disconnected from the context, with little engagement with surrounding organisations and support groups at the grassroots level. Sending in the military is not a grassroots level intervention. There should be a call for volunteers to bring food packages, hygiene products and informative brochures with helpful tips to townships. How else are we going to expect people to self-isolate? People need to feed their families, themselves, no amount of military presence will inspire respect when the problems are not solved by their presence.

Measures to provide food, shelter, water and sanitation at the community level has been severely left out. We are following the developed country mould, implementing actions for people who can self-isolate. We need actions that address the vulnerability of the population. Even with apparent awareness from our government that our context is different, employing largely the same measures is illogical.

Imagine we approached child hunger the way approach covid-19: shutdown entire nations because 15 000 children die every day. Or in response to the horrific statistics on gender-based violence in our country, we sent out the military to protect survivors. This is not an attempt to diminish the importance of Covid-19– but rather to point out our inability to balance our responses to crises.

So, what do we make of all this? At a personal level, remain aware of our context, we have so much more to consider and this response is unprecedented. Support people in worse positions, stand your ground on issues you believe in and be compassionate towards all approaches (you can still point out the hypocrisies, just do so knowing this is an incredibly complex time). Most importantly, if you find yourself in a position of privilege, follow the rules!

At a national level, please develop and reinforce grassroots level approaches. Do not expect respect when measures put in place do not function within the context of 80% of the population. The government is on the right track, we do need to trust the government, but the state urgently needs to address the nuances of the developing world context from a grassroots perspective and listen to what communities need.

Written by Aysha Lotter.

This work was carried out under the COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund supported under the auspices of the Science Granting Councils Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa (SGCI) and administered by South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF) in collaboration with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), the Fonds de Recherche du Québec (FRQ), the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID), United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Newton Fund, and the SGCI participating councils across 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.