JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s mines minister on Tuesday hailed 2014 as the “safest year” in the history of an industry that has claimed a huge toll in mostly black lives over the past century.
“There has been a reduction of about 86 percent in fatalities from 615 in 1993 to 84 in 2014, which is the safest year on record for the South African mining industry,” Ngoako Ramatlhodi said in prepared remarks.
Last year was exceptional for South African mining, with a five-month strike that brought most of the industry’s platinum production to a halt – a factor that probably contributed to the record as it meant tens of thousands of miners were not underground and exposed to danger during that time.
But Ramatlhodi said “the figures till the end of March 2015 show that we are well on track to improving further” on the 2014 numbers.
South Africa’s mines are the deepest and among the most dangerous in the world, reaching depths of 4 km (2-1/2 miles) below the surface. Under apartheid, scant attention was paid to the safety or well-being of an overwhelmingly black workforce.
Since the end of white minority rule in 1994, the government has been pushing a safety drive with the goal of “zero harm” in the shafts.
In recent years, the industry has at times complained that the drive was overzealous, with unnecessary safety stoppages imposed by inspectors, resulting in output and revenue losses.
Ramatlhodi, who was addressing one of the houses of parliament before a vote on his department’s budget, also said his ministry had started issuing notices to “licence holders” who have not complied with a government-mandated “mining charter”.
He did not specify what he meant by “notices”, but companies that fail to comply with the charter can face a number of sanctions including the loss of their mining licences.
Ramatlhodi has said 79 percent of mining companies have complied with a government target of achieving at least 26 percent black ownership of operations, a key component of the charter, which is aimed at redressing racial imbalances.
The industry disputes this, while the government and the Chamber of Mines have taken the issue to the courts.
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