Mineral council denies mines are Covid-19 hotspots

This opinion piece appeared in New Frame on 5 August 2020. The original can be viewed here.

Since the wholesale resumption of mining in South Africa after the various Covid-19 lockdowns, the industry’s lobby group, the Minerals Council of South Africa (Mincosa), has been working hard to control the story of the impact of the disease on miners and the people who live and work around mines. 

In public relations this is known as “shaping the message”, which means an entity with a vested interest in a controversial or problematic issue attempts to manage how the narrative develops in the media and in popular discourses. It is an effort to “get in there first” and make sure their specific narrative of what is taking place, or is likely to take place, becomes the dominant one. 

A 2013 report on communications within the mining sector – Changing the Game: Communications & Sustainability in the Mining Industry by the International Council on Mining and Metals – argues that “issues” should be anticipated before they appear, and effective communication strategies established to manage them going forward. It cautions that without an effective communications strategy, “facts” can become established which are then hard to counter. 

In the face of the coronavirus, the “fact” that Mincosa is desperately seeking to counter, which has come from provincial ministers of health and various parts of the media, is the claim that mines are epicentres of infection. For example, on 28 May 2020, Gauteng premier David Makhura noted that the mining area of the West Rand was a Covid-19 “hotspot”. A few days later on 6 June, Madoda Sambatha, MEC for health in the North West, stated that the increase in infections in the province was due to the “direct impact of mining operations”. 

Two weeks later Mpumalanga’s MEC for health, Sasekani Manzini, indicated that mines are being targeted in the province because of rising cases. On 29 June MEC for health in Limpopo, Phophi Ramathuba, drew attention to the mining “epicentres” in Sekhukhune and Mopani. Lastly, at the end of June, Department of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize stated that it was “inevitable” that there would be “cluster outbreaks”. Referring to the North West Province he said, “Cluster outbreaks in the mines have driven a sudden increase in the numbers in this province.” 

Each time such statements have been made, Mincosa has responded with denial. 

On 9 June, a press statement from the mineral council accused journalists and “government officials” of lacking a “proper understanding” of the virus. Two days later, Tebello Chabana, senior executive of public affairs and transformation at Mincosa, in an open attack on media reporting about Covid-19 in the mining sector, argued that it was “inaccurate” to state that mines were “hotspots”, accusing media representatives of “fearmongering”. Using a Trumpesque turn of phrase, he called on journalists to “report facts, rather than hearsay”. Recently, Thuthula Balfour, head of health at Mincosa, stated that nobody should be using the term “hotspot” to describe Covid-19 infection rates at mines. 

These denials, however, fly in the face of reality. As historian Shula Marks reminds us, mines have always been “fertile terrain for the exchange of pathogens” – and they remain so. Miners and mining communities are disproportionately burdened with respiratory problems such as silicosis and tuberculosis, problems exacerbated by migrant labour patterns, and poor housing and sanitary conditions within mining communities. The constant recycling of air that takes place within mines together with the proximity of miners, many of whom suffer from often-undiagnosed respiratory problems, create ideal conditions for the particular transmission characteristics of Covid-19. 

The facts

Infection rates in mining areas speak for themselves. For example, as of 22 July, Mincosa had confirmed 3 184 positive cases among miners in the North West Province, accounting for 22% of the province’s 14 634 cases. This means that of the total number of positive cases, 11 450 have been identified in the province’s general population. But 88% (12 832) of the province’s total positive cases have been identified in the two district municipalities most associated with mining – Bojanala Platinum District Municipality (accounting for 63% of total cases) and Dr Kenneth Kaunda District Municipality (accounting for 25% of total cases). This is despite the two district municipalities making up only 64% of the province’s total population. The Rustenburg Local Municipality (located within the Bojanala Platinum District Municipality), the centre of platinum mining in South Africa, accounts for no less than 49% of the province’s entire case load (7 127 cases), despite accounting for only 17% of the province’s entire population. 

If we assume that all mining infections that have taken place in the North West Province have occurred in these two district municipalities (3 184), and subtract these mining infections from the total number of positive cases in these two district municipalities (12 832), we find that no less than 9 678 ordinary members of the public have become infected in these two district municipalities. Of the province’s Covid-19 deaths to date, 60% (29 out of 48) have been among mine employees.  

The impact of mining is the only correlation for the high infection rates in these areas. What these figures indicate is that those living near mines are more likely to become Covid-19 positive than those living elsewhere in the North West Province where there are no mines. If this were not the case, we would expect to see the cases in the general population spread proportionally within the population of the province, subject to factors such as population density. 

In another comment reminiscent of Trump, Mincosa claimed that the infection rates only appear high at mines because it is undertaking more testing than in the general population, thus revealing cases that would otherwise have gone undetected. While the testing rate at mines (7.23% of miners) is indeed above the national average (4.27% of population) this does not explain why the positive rate among miners is more than double that of those tested in the general population. Clearly other factors are at play that explain this higher rate of positive cases. 

In addition, it should be noted that the statistical analysis being undertaken by Mincosa is subject to correction. It is basing its calculation of positive cases per population on the entire population of miners being present and working at the mines. The latest figures from the council, dated 9 July, note that on that day 292 919 miners were back at work. A day later, Mincosa stated that 0.93% of the mining population had been infected, but this calculation is against the total number of miners, which Mincosa records as 425 231. If the calculation is against the actual number back at work, 292 919, then the infection rate is 1.35%, against a national figure of 0.4% on the same day.

The social licence to mine

There seem to be several reasons Mincosa is so keen to deny that mines are epicentres of the disease. It is becoming increasingly clear to the mining industry that it needs a social licence to mine. That is, it increasingly needs the support of nearby communities and society more widely to operate. Gone are the days when mines simply open, regardless of the concerns of affected parties. This change has been brought about after years of pressure from international organisations such as Oxfam and Action Aid, and by pressure exerted by mining communities themselves via grassroots organisations such as Mining Affected Communities United in Action.

While there is still a long way to go before the principles of free, prior and informed consent are properly realised, mining houses now operate within what the industry itself refers to as “a new landscape” where “maintaining a social licence to operate is more directly linked to value perceived by host communities/countries”. If Mincosa were to acknowledge that mines are, or are likely to become, Covid-19 hotspots, then questions will inevitably be asked concerning the social licence of mines to operate within such circumstances. 

It is not clear how long Mincosa can pretend that mines and mining communities are not infection hotspots given the rate at which infections are rising among miners. Just over a month ago, on 18 June, the mineral council reported 1 229 positive cases, of which 768 were active. On 23 July, it reported 7 273 cases, of which 3 259 are active. 

Despite Mincosa’s attempts to “shape the message” it is quite clear that the “story” of mining during the Covid-19 pandemic is the same one that characterises the history of mining in South Africa – a story that tells us again and again that miners and the communities that host them are less important than profits for mining houses and tax revenues for the government. 

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