Mon. Mar 4th, 2024

In its past financial year, which ended on 30 June, five mine workers were killed at (Implats) operations. This tragic statistic was flagged in the company’s annual results, which is standard procedure for listed South African mining companies. 

Still, like the wider mining industry, Implats has been making strides on the safety front, and South Africa’s deep and dangerous platinum and gold mines are no longer the death traps they once were. In the previous financial year, the company had eight employees killed on the job, seven at the operations it manages.

While underground mining operations are becoming safer, another category of worker is literally coming under increasing attack. Implats actually had eight employees killed in the last financial year, but three did not lose their lives underground. Three men employed by the company’s security unit at its refinery in Springs in Ekurhuleni were murdered while off duty. At least one was shot dead in his driveway at home.

Meanwhile, diversified miner Sibanye-Stillwater, which also produces platinum group metals (PGMs), has seen a surge in attacks on its security personnel, as we reported last week. A disturbing pattern seems to be emerging: as South African mining becomes safer for miners, security personnel increasingly find themselves in the line of fire. 

The rise in attacks is not across the board in the mining sector, but the examples of Sibanye and Implats are a stark warning of the risks to the industry stemming from organised crime.

“We have had an increase in syndicated crime activity at our refinery. We had three of our security members killed in the last financial year,” Implats’ CEO Nico Muller told Daily Maverick.

“It is aimed at our security personnel. It is aimed at where the high-value product is contained … We are aware of syndicates that are targeting our refineries.”

Recycling industry

Muller did not provide details on how much, if any, PGM products have been stolen from Implats’ refinery. But he and other Implats officials said the syndicates exported the material and that the recycling industry for PGM products was the most likely destination.

“I think the easiest distribution channels have to do with recycling. It’s like with scrap metal. That is a channel that lends itself to the acceptance of rogue products,” Muller said.

Sibanye, which produces gold and PGMs in South Africa, has also seen a rise in attacks, as we previously reported. The company has since provided data on this score. 

In 2019, the company recorded 57 attacks on security officers. In 2020, that number rose to 74, despite — or perhaps enabled by — Covid-19 lockdown measures.

The number climbed to 84 in 2021 and then spiked to 141 in 2022. And in the first six months of this year, it reached 97, more than 2021’s total. If this frightening trend continues, Sibanye could experience almost 200 such attacks in 2023.

The breakdown of attacks this year alone is chilling. 

“Sixteen security officers were injured, with four sustaining gunshot wounds and 12 sustaining injuries during robberies and incursions into shaft areas, including three sustaining significant injuries when assaulted by a group of approximately 20 intruders. Another one suffered a knife wound and one security officer was struck with a bolt cutter,” says an internal Sibanye security report that the company showed Daily Maverick.

Factors at play here include the fact that Sibanye has become more proactive in the face of the threats, but it is between a rock and a hard place. It does not want to put its security personnel in danger if this can be avoided, but the onslaught is mounting while the police are failing to do their job.

“This could be related to the fact that we have been more proactive in addressing these issues. We have increased our efforts but there clearly has been a major escalation,” Sibanye spokesperson James Wellsted told Daily Maverick. “But we also don’t want to put our guys in protective services in harm’s way and the police must really step in and do their job. This is part of the problem.”

Increasing use of violence

The internal security report points to an escalation. 

“Criminals are increasingly using violence to achieve their aims, and security officers are singled out to be neutralised by being assaulted, restrained and indeed murdered, as a way to overcome protective security measures and the men and women who make up the final line of defence. Criminal groups are larger in numbers, more heavily armed and organised, resulting in the frequency and intensity of attacks being more unpredictable.” 

Gold Fields said it had seen a rise in criminal activity in the area around its South Deep mine in western Gauteng. Sibanye has active and mothballed gold operations in the same area. 

“There has been an increase in criminal activities in the areas surrounding South Deep. With the continued support from local law enforcement, South Deep has to date been able to detect, deter and deny possible attacks targeted towards South Deep,” Gold Fields’ spokesperson Sven Lunsche told Daily Maverick.

“South Deep itself has jacked up its security with fencing all around its property, 24-hour presence of armed security personnel in armoured vehicles and advanced monitoring equipment and technology. This has acted successfully as a deterrent,” Lunsche said. 

This speaks to the rising security costs that the industry has to bear to ward off criminal threats.

Gauteng seems to be the hotspot. Mining companies including Implats and Northam have reported a decrease in social unrest and outright criminality on the northeastern limb of the Platinum Belt spanning Limpopo and Mpumalanga, in part because of improved policing.

Meanwhile, it is becoming less dangerous underground. 

Last year, South Africa’s mining sector had a record year for safety, with a death toll of 49 — still a shocking number at almost one fatality a week, but a vast improvement over just a few years ago. In 2008, for example, 170 miners were killed at work in South Africa, but that represented significant progress. In 1986, the toll was 800 deaths, or almost 16 a week. Injury rates have also declined massively.

But on the surface, especially in Gauteng, the job is becoming more dangerous for people employed as security personnel. Fewer rocks are falling on miners, while security officers are being shot and battered in growing numbers. DM

By Joy

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