Harmony Gold had their annual general meeting (AGM) in Sandton North of Johannesburg. (L) MD Frank Abbott, CEO Peter Steenkamp, Harmony Chairman Patrice Motsepe, and Shela Mohatla company secretary. Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi/African News Agency (ANA)

JOHANNESBURG – Harmony Gold Mining Company's struggle to eliminate fatalities during the year to the end of June came under the spotlight at the company's annual general meeting held in Johannesburg on Friday. 

Shareholder activist Theo Botha took the company's executives to task, charging that they had failed 37 000 employees, as workers continued to die on duty.

“In the last 10 years, Harmony has lost 127 employees and an average of 12 fatalities a year. This year, we have had 11 fatalities. Surely you must acknowledge the fact that the company has failed to protect the workers in terms of safety,” said Botha.

Botha said Harmony had not covered itself in glory, charging that the company's social and ethics committee had failed to meet to hold management accountable.

Harmony reported 11 fatalities in 2019 at the company's South African mines despite the company's focus on eliminating fatalities. However, there were no fatalities at the company's Papua New Guinea operations in 2019.

In 2018, 13 employees died at the company's operations.

Harmony chief executive Peter Steenkamp said the company was saddened by the fatalities, which continued despite efforts by the group to curb the loss of life.

“We launched a programme to address fatalities three years ago, and we have done a lot of work in this regard. It is a real disappointment, and we are committed to addressing these issues,” Steenkamp said, adding that the programme was a five-year process.

“We have the buy-in from all our employees for the programme, and we believe that we are on the right track. We are in a deep level mining environment, but that should not deter us from eliminating fatalities,” said Steenkamp.

Board chairperson Patrice Motsepe said that while the courts as a principle decided who was to blame for the deaths, it was the company's executives who accounted in the case of fatalities.

“As a company, as a first instance, if anyone loses their life at work, the moral obligation is ours. We take the moral obligation,” said Motsepe. 

Motsepe said sustainability was important to the company, and the executives were responsible for fatalities.

“The responsibility, not just on safety, ends with the board. If there are failures, whether it is health or safety, I am the leader of the board. I am accountable on behalf of the board,” Motsepe said.

Botha asked whether the company had a succession plan, given that six directors were over 70 years old and had been there for a long time.

“Does the company have a succession plan?” he asked, adding the board needed to be rejuvenated.

Motsepe said US business magnate Warren Buffett was 88 years old and his sidekick Charlie Munger was 95 years old, and they created shareholder value.

Motsepe said the company was in the process of bringing in young directors.

“Some of the guys there understand the mines, not just the ones that we operate but the ones we are hoping to acquire. That kind of experience and knowledge you cannot find,” said Motsepe.  

Mavuso Msimang, 78, Joaquim Chissano, 80, Ken Dicks 80, Max Sisulu 74, John Wetton, 70, and André Wilkens, 70, are the directors aged 70 years and above.

Mehluli Mncube, a shareholder representative for various pension funds, asked when the company would change its auditors.

“Why has the company re-elected the auditors given that they have been with the company for a long time?” Mncube asked.