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...