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The mining industry has warned of permanent damage if the 21-day lockdown is extended
The re-opening of SA's mines could be discussed at the weekend, ending two days of high-level talks with labour and industry about the plight of mining and the implications of not restarting operations at the end of the 21-day national lockdown.
The meetings, chaired by mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe, came as SA ended the second week of the lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 that has wreaked havoc with economies and societies around the world.
The Minerals Council SA, whose members represent 90% of SA's mineral production, and three unions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Solidarity and UASA, were in the talks.
The concern in the industry is that the government could extend the lockdown to curtail the infection rate, a process called flattening the curve, and avoiding a surge in infected people overwhelming healthcare facilities.
Any special dispensation for the mining industry to return to work, albeit under strict conditions, will be sure to raise an outcry from other segments of the industrial base which will similarly demand a return to work.
Insiders spoke of an air of collaboration at the talks and the need to keep 450,000 mineworkers safe and return the industry back to production as soon as permissible, but that the message was conveyed of the damage arising from a prolonged shutdown.
Already there are approved if limited mining, smelting and refinery operations underway, predominantly at operations with open pits and plants that can be staffed with small numbers, allowing for social-distancing, health-monitoring and supply of protective equipment.
Underground mines have been shut because of the congestion of people around the shafts as employees are lowered in steel lifts or raised to the surface in tightly confined conditions. Returning these mines to operation will take up to four weeks.
The council said in a note to its members that it is important for the industry to return to production on April 17, otherwise there could be permanent damage, with production for April forecast to be one-fifth lower and a wage bill of R7bn for the lockdown, excluding the costs of putting mines into care and maintenance.
"When we do resume operations as an industry, it will not be business as usual,"the council said on Thursday after the two days of meetings, noting "the disease is likely to be with us for some months yet, with some experts indicating a likely peak in June this year,"it said.
"But it is premature to comment on when such a resumption may be. This will depend on decisions that the government as a whole will take on the approach after the end of the current lockdown period, and it will be within a holistic view of the entire economy."
The National Command Council (NCC) for the coronavirus is expected to meet during the four-day Easter weekend when Mantashe will discuss the outcomes of the meeting with his cabinet colleagues and President Cyril Ramaphosa ahead of the third and, as things stand, final week of the lockdown.
"The engagements are ongoing and proposals will be presented to the NCC for ratification. The minister will communicate the outcomes post-ratification by the NCC,"the department said on Thursday, declining to comment on when this might happen.
Rapid, decisive response
The government has won plaudits locally and abroad for its rapid and tough stance on shutting down an already beleaguered economy to curtail the spread of the disease, but it has come at a cost.
"It is certainly the industry's hope that the lockdown, which has come at great expense and sacrifice to so many South Africans, has, indeed, flattened the curve,"the council said. "Certainly, initial indications are that it has done so, and at the very least it will give the country and companies time to put in place improved measures to proceed under our new reality."
The council has a health policy committee that has drawn up standard operating procedures for all members to follow in work practices and return to operations during these times, drawing on inputs from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the department of health, the mineral resources and energy department, and others to determine best practice.
"Employee health will be assessed at the resumption of operations in line with WHO protocols, including assessment of possible symptoms, travel history and recent contacts. Proper social-distancing and face covers, in some circumstances, will be adhered to during this time,"the council said.
It will take deep-level underground mines two to four weeks to make working areas safe as well as to screen and retrain tens of thousands of employees once the go-ahead for operations is given.