The close bonds of cooperation and collaboration between South Africa’s mining industry and its stakeholders pushed it to the forefront of the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, says Minerals Council South Africa CEO Roger Baxter, adding that the industry continues to lead the way through ambitious vaccination targets for 2021.
Covid-19 forced the closure of much of the South African mining industry in March 2020, along with the rest of the economy but, by working in close collaboration and cooperation with the government and other key stakeholders in organised labour, mines were brought back into production and employees returned safely and sustainably to work, well ahead of other industries.
“There is no doubt the industry’s risk-based approach combining preventative and mitigating controls, in partnership with government and organised labour, enabled it to recover quickly and to sustain its employment levels.”
Baxter notes that, by applying its experiences and learnings, the industry has been able to successfully roll out the vaccination programme that has seen more than half its workforce of 450 000 employees and contractors partially or fully vaccinated by mid-October.
“This encouraging progress enabled the Minerals Council board, in consultation with member companies, to set the target of 80% of the workforce receiving their first vaccination by the end of October.”
This would set up the mining industry to achieve 80% full vaccination by the end of December, giving a significant number of mineworkers access to the government-issued vaccination certificate and allowing their lives to return to normal, as much as possible.
To that end, the Minerals Council is working with government to facilitate cross border movement of fully vaccinated mineworkers to and from neighbouring countries at the end of the year by using their vaccination certificates.
“It cannot be understated how much the close working relationship with the Department of Health at a national, regional and local level allowed us to achieve the successes we have. This relationship was built on the mature, supportive and cooperative relationship the Minerals Council and its members established with the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy during 2020.”
Baxter adds that the support and leadership cooperation of the industry’s four major unions – the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, the National Union of Mineworkers, Solidarity and UASA – have been invaluable in tackling the epidemic during the return to work and rollout of the ambitious yet achievable vaccination campaign.
The success of the industry’s vaccination programme can be traced in numbers.
“From just one pilot vaccination site at Impala Platinum in May 2021, the mining industry has rapidly established 52 sites to vaccinate employees, with larger companies offering the use of their facilities to smaller companies. The success of the industry’s vaccination programme has been the ability to tap into third-party service providers and municipal health facilities while at the same time using tried-and-tested mine sites.”
Baxter says that the industry’s decades of experience in combatting HIV/Aids and tuberculosis positioned it perfectly in the fight against the coronavirus.
“As we achieve major, significant inroads into vaccinating our employees, we have begun vaccinating their dependants and members of mining communities as part of a national effort to combat the virus and its devastating consequences.
“Mining companies are operating 75 registered vaccination sites.”
There is much debate in various sectors of the economy about mandatory vaccinations for employees. The Minerals Council has not taken a position on this and is continuing its strong focus on encouragement and reasoned argument, by making vaccinations easily accessible to all who choose to take them.
“The thrust of the reasoning is that vaccines are safe, efficacious, minimise the chances of hospitalisation and death from Covid-related symptoms, and protect family and friends. So far we have vaccinated 242 500 employees, meaning that 53.7% of employees have at least received their first jab. Our hope is that over the next few weeks, our support for vaccinations, including support for the Vooma Vaccination week, will enable the 80% target to be reached. This will save many lives and livelihoods as we open the economy.”
The Minerals Council has convened a working group of member companies and a task team with unions to develop messaging and tools to understand and deal with vaccine hesitancy, and to provide employees and community members with sound, fact-based information to enable and encourage the acceptance of vaccines.
The mining industry is, on average, well ahead of the national average for vaccinations, which demonstrates its commitment to the health, safety and wellbeing of employees, their families and communities.
The collaborative efforts by all stakeholders have not only saved jobs and ensured salaries were paid during the lockdown period, but it also rescued the broader South African economy, with mining the largest source of taxes for the State, allowing it to roll out emergency grants to millions of people.
“The sector, despite a 11% decline in production, lifted export earnings by 24%, taxes paid increased threefold to about R91-billion and royalty payments doubled to about R13-billion. All this helped contribute to stabilising the economy in a very challenging period.”
Baxter comments that the economic facts point to how vital the recovery has been for the country. “Employee remuneration of R152-billion during the disrupted year was far higher than the R144-billion paid the year before. Primary mineral sales grew to nearly R610-billion during 2020 from R552-billion, while exports grew to R450.6-billion from R362-billion the year before.”