Following the death of six mineworkers at Phalaborwa copper mine in July, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) released a statement claiming the deaths were due to a “lack of commitment” by mining companies to “zero harm and zero death by the mining sector”.
At the time, Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) president Joseph Mathunjwa said in an interview with Kaya FM that “mine owners are negligent in South Africa”, and called for them to be charged for the deaths just as they would be had they been driving a car and knocked someone over.
Yet, the efforts of mining houses - coupled with pressure from the media, politicians and unions - has been extremely effective since 1994 in bringing the industry ever closer to its goal of doing zero harm by 2024.
Attention-grabbing comments, such as Mathunjwa’s, can obscure mining's huge successes in reducing deaths over the years, its efforts towards reaching Zero Harm and, ultimately, the reality that a South Africa without the economic contribution made by a thriving mining industry would see vastly more people die unnecessarily through poverty.
Viewed over the short term, 2017 and 2018 have seen an increase in deaths from previous years, the 82 deaths in 2017 eclipsing the 73 reported in 2016.
By August this year, it had also been confirmed that 58 mineworkers had died in South African mines compared with 51 during the same period in 2017. These numbers are, however, slightly misleading as 20 of this year's fatalities have been at Sibanye-Stillwater mines - a sign that the recent spike in deaths may be a singular company issue and not an industry-wide problem.
Viewed over the long term, however, the industry's record of reducing the death toll is inspirational.
Consider that, in 1956 - according to Dr HJ Simmons in his paper titled “Death in South African Mines” - 8162 miners were killed in accidents and the accident death rate was 1.56 per 1000 workers. The incidence of accidents (not necessarily fatal) was also a massive 58.7 per 1000 workers in 1956.
According to the Minerals Council, a total of 464667 people were employed in the mining sector in 2017, meaning that if the current industry matched the 1956 death toll, there would have been 724 deaths in 2018 and almost 28000 accidents. And the numbers for 1956 are significantly better than the 1910 deaths rate of 4.40 per 1 000 for black and 3.49 per 1 000 for white workers.
Indeed, even if looked at from 1994, the fatality rate had fallen dramatically, with 615 fatalities recorded in that year.
Back in 1956, as today, gold mining exacted the highest toll in the sector, a cumulative consequence of the high temperatures, humidity, and frequency of rock-bursts typical of gold mines.
Dr Simmons highlights the concern that these difficulties were extreme as some of these mines reached a depth of “9000 feet in the deepest gold mines” (2.7km). The deepest mines are now over 4km deep, vastly exacerbating the problems of 1956. Yet, the number of deaths has been on a consistent downward trend.
The total of 77 fatalities reported in 2015 is 8percent lower than the 84 deaths recorded in 2014, which was itself an improvement over the 100 miners who died in 2012 and 93 in 2013. These numbers cannot be viewed purely as statistics. The year-on-year decrease means that on average fewer families now lose husbands, brothers, sisters, or daughters in the mines and, in that light, each statistical decrease is a massive victory.
Credit for these gains can be given directly to the mines themselves for their extraordinary efforts to prevent deaths. With constant improvements in the way of ventilation, mine lay-out engineering, and air-conditioning as well as the introduction of improved tunnel support, rock-burst nets and frequent shift changes, among many others, the vast majority of the causes of deaths in mines of the past have been eradicated.
According to the Minerals Council, the Mine Health and Safety Council has invested R15million in falls-of-ground research over the past few years to curb them. A further R250m has been spent on research into seismicity associated with deep-level mines.
This latter research is going to be critical moving forward as seismic activity in mines is extremely difficult to detect and almost impossible to predict using current technology. It has been one of the major reasons for mine fatalities this year.
In addition, R40m had been spent on fundamental and applied research and technology transfer.
With almost half a million people employed by the mining industry, and each of these supporting as many as nine direct beneficiaries (according to the Minerals Council), rather than use mine fatalities as an opportunity to condemn the industry, South Africa would do better to work with mining companies as they do everything they can to ensure the 2024 goal of Zero Harm is met, because a South Africa without a thriving mining industry would be much deadlier.
Warren Robertson is a writer commissioned by the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank promoting political and economic freedom.