Danger Underground

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The mining industry, one of the pillars of the South African economy, stands on unsafe ground, with the country's Human Rights Commission saying South Africa's mines are the most dangerous in the world.

So far this year, 201 lives have been lost in South Africa's mines, the latest incidents seeing four miners killed in two separate accidents over the weekend of December 1 and 2. Despite a commitment by the mining industry to boost safety standards, this year's death toll looks set to eclipse that of the past two years, when 202 and 199 miners died in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

The death tolls over the past few years are well down on those of a decade ago, when some 500 miners died each year, with an all-time high of 900 deaths in 1987. However the numbers are again creeping up.

Now such accidents are set to cost the industry dearly, with the department of minerals and energy having established a committee to conduct a safety audit of all of the country's mines. The study was ordered by President Thabo Mbeki in October after 3200 miners were trapped underground for a short time following an accident at the Elandsrand mine operated by Harmony Gold.

The aim of the audit is to determine the extent to which mines comply with health and safety requirements. It will also help mines develop programmes of action to improve their health and safety practices, the government said.

The department has also said it will order mines where accidents occur to be closed, a move aimed at hitting mining companies in the pocket if they do not improve their safety records.

According to Thabo Gazi, the head of the mines inspection unit, South Africa's mining firms had failed to meet the commitment they made to improve safety. That commitment, made in 2003, set a reduction of 20% a year in mine fatalities.

The poor safety record of South Africa's mines was highlighted on December 4, when more than 250,000 miners held a one-day strike to publicise the problem.

Senzeni Zokwana, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said the government did not supporting the rights of miners as it failed to prosecute negligent employers, despite the ministry's promise to close mines where accidents take place.

"We demand safety in mines and we want to show the world that we are tired," Zokwana told a mass rally in Johannesburg. "The time has come for mine owners to change."

The unions' demands include better training and pay for mine inspectors to encourage higher standards, prosecution of mining companies found guilty of negligence, and the full implementation of previous recommendations for mine safety.

It is still too early to put an exact figure on the cost of the one-day protest to the mining sector, but insiders believe it is substantial. AngloGold Ashanti, South Africa's largest gold producer, said none of its mines was operating on December 4, while the country's second largest producer, Gold Fields, said more than two thirds of its workforce had laid down their tools for the day.

Simon Tebele, a spokesman for producer Anglo Platinum, said the strike had resulted in lost production of around 9000 oz of refined platinum, which would have an impact on its year-end production targets.

Though authorities have closed, at least temporarily, some 50 mines due to unsafe working conditions, there have been few prosecutions for non-compliance with safety regulations.

The NUM presented the Chamber of Mines, an organisation of industry employers, with a memorandum during the December 4 strike, claiming there was a lack of legal action against mine owners who failed to apply safety standards.

"Legislation must be strengthened in the areas that provide for fines and imprisonment imposed in severe punishment for high non-compliance," the memorandum said.

With mining contributing around 18% of South Africa's GDP, a figure set to rise this year with increasing commodities prices, the country can ill afford large scale shut downs across the minerals sector. Frans Barker, the chamber's executive director, said it was apparent from the rising death toll that mine safety was worsening but said his organisation would work with stakeholders to devise strategies to improve conditions.

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