Magazine article African Business

How Safe Are African Miners? While Mining Is Crucial to Africa's Economic Wellbeing, Just How Safe Are African Miners Compared to Others in the Rest of the World? Neil Ford Investigates

Magazine article African Business

How Safe Are African Miners? While Mining Is Crucial to Africa's Economic Wellbeing, Just How Safe Are African Miners Compared to Others in the Rest of the World? Neil Ford Investigates

Article excerpt

The recent miners strike in South Africa and a report by War on Want have thrust the social and environmental consequences of mining activities into the spotlight.


In common with the oil and gas industry, the mining sector exports raw materials that generate large revenues for many African governments. It also provides employment to many miners, who in turn often support large extended families with their wages.

There is no doubt that the industry has its dangers and that mining work can be unpleasant, but it is vital that decent standards on health, safety and environmental protection are maintained. As well as coal, South Africa mines large quantities of platinum and gold. It already exports 72m tonnes of coal a year (mt/y) and the government hopes that this will be boosted to 116 mt/y by 2020. As examined on page 36 of this issue of African Business, this will require huge investment in additional rail capacity and the expansion of Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT). However, it will also result in the development of new mines, both in the coal industry heartland of Mpumalanga Province and in the emerging Waterberg coal fields, in Limpopo Province. This will provide greater employment for workers from South Africa and other states in the region, so the safety standards applied will affect even more people.

South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) held a one day strike in December in protest at poor safety standards in the country's large mining sector.

In October, 3,000 miners were trapped underground at a gold mine owned by Harmony Gold for more than a day and even the company admitted that South African safety standards left much to be desired. The trades union complains that health and safety legislation is inadequate and that even when mining companies break those regulations that are in place, they are seldom prosecuted. In addition, the NUM argues that higher commodity prices have encouraged mining firms to put profit ahead of safety in the rush to boost production.

A total of 199 workers were killed during the course of 2006 and this figure has already been surpassed this year. About 240,000 miners took part in the industrial action, of whom one in six joined a protest march in Johannesburg.

The head of health and safety at the NUM, Erick Gcilitshana, said: "Workers are saying enough is enough. Safety is needed now. The industry made a lot of empty commitments and the fatality rates are forever rising to the stars ... employers need to take a leadership role and invest in safety in the same way they invest in production."

A spokesperson for the Chamber of Mines told the BBC: "We share these concerns with the union. We've agreed with the union that they will go on this work stoppage, in exchange for which the parties will sit down in the next few weeks and months. And we're going to jointly work out action plans and pledges to address the issue of safety." The government has launched an audit into mining, which the NUM hopes will recommend improvements.

Voluntary codes not working

In its recent Fanning the Flames: The role of British mining companies in conflict and the violation of human rights report, the British NGO, War on Want, argued that mining companies were not abiding by their social responsibilities in Africa. Focusing solely on British firms or companies with British links, such as Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti and Vedanta, it concluded that voluntary codes of conduct were not working.

AngloGold Ashanti and Anglo American said that the claims were outdated. The former conceded that cyanide had been spilled twice at Obuasi mine in Ghana in 2005 but argued that the pollution had now been cleaned up. According to War on Want, the Zambian government complained that the Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), in which Vedanta Resources has a 51% stake, polluted the Kafue River. …

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