SOUTH Africa’s coal mines and processing facilities operated by platinum group metal (PGM) producers would continue to operate, albeit at reduced levels, during the 21-day lockdown due to start at midnight on March 26.
Mines and energy minister, Gwede Mantashe, said in a Government briefing today that energy supply was critical to the economy. “The supply of fuel and supply of coal to Eskom and liquid fuel production are critical in this period,” said Mantashe.
The exportation of coal would be assessed “on its own merits. In some cases, coal mining firms mine seams that yield both domestic and export-quality coal.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an address on March 23, in which he announced the lockdown aimed at slowing the spread oF the COVID-19 virus that “… companies whose operations require continuous processes such as furnaces, underground mine operations will be required to make arrangements for care and maintenance to avoid damage to their continuous operations”.
There were concerns, however, that processing facilities such as smelters and furnaces were not easily switched off nor restarted owing to the expense and potential danger to the specialised equipment.
Mantashe said a meeting with the Minerals Council South Africa and unions active in the mining sector was intended “to give meaning” to Ramaphosa’s statement.
As a result, processing facilities would be allowed to continue. “In some mining operations, a complete shutdown will not be feasible as a restart from scratch would be too costly and endanger security of supply and endanger the economy,” he said.
“Production in the gold, chrome, manganese and other sectors will be scaled down while the processing of surface material in the PGMs sector will continue for the production of – among others medical products. This will allow smelters, which cannot be switched on and off abruptly, to remain operational,” he said.
Despite the shutdown of open cast and underground mining, essential services that support the sector such as security and related infrastructure, maintenance, water pumping, refrigeration and ventilation would continue, said Mantashe.
Mantashe said that the Minerals Council had committed to make health infrastructure, including facilities and staff, available during the lockdown in order to support Government efforts in combating the COVID-19 crisis in the country.
Asked about whether facilities would be made available to allow workers to return to their homes – a large portion of employees in the mining sector are migrant workers – Mantashe said it would be irresponsible to allow too much movement of people during the lockdown which was designed to stop the proliferation of the COVID-19 virus.
“There must be no massive migration of mines to the villages,” he said. “This is not paid leave. Instead, workers should be allowed to work flexible shifts in terms of the reduced production …” of the mines.
The production of petroleum including fuel, paraffin and liquified petroleum gas will be considered an essential service. Imports of petroleum products will be scaled back, however as Government anticipates excess capacity during the 21 day lockdown.