Could This Possibly Happen

April 27, 2009


Sqhwehle Masondo, newly appointed inspector of mines in the Rustenburg area was driving back to the office after his visit to one of the platinum mines. He felt satisfied, he has done well for himself. Twenty-six years old, four years since the completion of his studies and he was an inspector of mines and he got their quicker than the people in the old days used to do. Today was particularly satisfying. He issued a Section 54, not that there was a particularly life threatening situation, but because he could and he thoroughly enjoyed the look of shock on the face of the arrogant asshole of a manager.

Walking into the building housing the DME offices he proceeded up the stairs. Halfway up the first flight of stairs, one of the many loose tiles caused him to stumble resulting in a sprained ankle and twisted knee. With great difficulty, he hobbled to his office.

Needing to fill out a preliminary injury report, he switched on his computer and plugged the printer into the wall socket, torn out of its box and suspended only from the electric wiring leading to it. As he pushed the plug into the socket, he felt a sharp shock and jerked away from the socket as if a snake bit him. This action resulted in him bumping into the filing cabinet next to the electric socket. The stack of files on top of the cabinet tumbled onto him, causing him to fall backwards. A wood screw, protruding from a piece of wood which somehow became detached from a wooden desk a few days earlier and now lying on the floor, penetrated his anatomy between his scrotum and anus at an angle resulting in the screw imbedding itself next to and in touch with Sqwhehle’s prostrate. In the process, he also knocked his head against the side of the desk, rendering him mercifully unconscious.

Sqhwehle regained consciousness as the paramedics arrived and proceeded to prepare him for stretcher transport. With him lying on his back, the paramedics were not aware of the screw imbedded in his anatomy. As they started moving him, the movement of the screw resulted in excruciating pain but also an immediate erection and orgasm every time the screw moved against his prostrate gland. The paramedics strapped him to the stretcher and could not understand the screams of pain interspersed with howls of ecstasy coupled with a happy, but also agonised expression, on Sqwhehle’s face. They started carrying him down the stairs on the stretcher. The procession was almost halfway down the stairs when the front stretcher-bearer’s foot hooked in the cavity left by a missing tile causing him to fall and tumble head over heals until he came to rest on the landing at the bottom of the stairs where he lied prone with his neck twisted at an unnatural angle. When the first stretcher-bearer fell, the rear bearer lost control of the stretcher and the stretcher containing the unfortunate Sqwhehle bounced down the stairs, resulting in waves of agony and ecstasy wracking the unfortunate Sqwhehle’s convulsing and battered body. When the stretcher reached the bottom of the stairs, the leading end rammed into the ribcage of the first stretcher-bearer. The momentum of the stretcher caused it to cartwheel twice, each time bouncing Sqwhehle’s head on the floor rendering him unconscious once again. The stretcher finally came to rest against a wall. Sqhwehle had blood streaming from all the natural orifices in his head as well as from some openings that weren’t there before.

Just then, Krappies Bothma, acting principal inspector, twice retired and now working as a contractor to complete the mentoring he was supposed to have done during his previous tenure, walked into the building and was confronted by a very dead-looking paramedic and a bleeding and unconscious Sqwhehle. Krappies’ eyes locked on the jerking body of Sqwhehle and he just shook his head. Funny, he did not look particularly surprised.

To cut a long story short, the paramedic was pronounced dead and Sqwhehle, because of brain damage, will suffer from spastic convulsions for the rest of his life. This should not be too awkward since he has had a nervous twitch since the day he fell of the train roof whilst he was train surfing on the Soweto-Johannesburg line.

The Minister expressed her sympathy with the victims and re-iterated the need to reduce mine accidents. She called on mining companies to take safety seriously. She made the point that the poor attitude demonstrated by the owners and management in mining industry, causes unfortunate accidents such as this unfortunate incidents. The President of NUM called for a stay-away in the Rustenburg area to show solidarity and to make mine owners and mine management aware of the risks facing mineworkers.

The CEO of the mining company that caused this terrible accident expressed his condolences with the family of the deceased and promised the companies’ support for the family of the injured. He stated that the stakeholders must work together in their attempts to create a safer environment. It was announced the following day that he decided to accept a position as CEO of a mining company in Australia.


Note: Any similarity to real people, situations and occurrences referred to in “Could This Really Happen” are purely coincidental. If you find the story getting to close to home, do not worry, it is set in a South African environment after all.


The Graceful Flight of Money

April 25, 2009

It was reported in a recent study that South Africa was the third least attractive investment destination for international mining investors. The only African countries found to be less attractive than South Africa, was the DRC and Zimbabwe. Whereas environmental regulations and tax do deter investment in South Africa, the biggest deterrents remain the uncertainty as to the interpretation of new mining legislation, regulatory inconsistencies and misgivings about land claims. South Africa also received a poor score in terms of labour relations and security.

The aforementioned deterrents are caused by actions perceived to be negative, risky and counter productive Investor perceptions are reinforced by statements politicians make and resultant expectations based on past performance. The impact of affirmative action and BBEEE coupled with the behaviour of the DME and labour in the area of safety and health is having an impact on perceptions and expectations. The delays in the promulgation of the land bill coupled to delays in expected amendments to the mining charter and promised changes in Royalty charges, does little to change perceptions. On the contrary, they serve to create more pessimism amongst investors. Promises, by politicians, to turn the Northern Cape into a mineral powered Utopia, by distributing more of the areas’ vast “mineral wealth” to the inhabitants, do not go unnoticed. Statements about radical changes in economic policy and the ascendancy of labour in the new ANC leadership do not add to investor’s confidence. Few statements by current and future leaders during the run-up to elections inspire confidence with investors. We know, from experience, that many things said during election campaigns are empty promises, populist rhetoric and mostly outright lies. However, with players the likes of Mantashe, Vavi and Nzimandi involved, this time around may be different and we can expect some vigour in implementing the populist promises.

Understanding potential investors and the way in which they express themselves, always politically correct with words wrapped in layers of cotton wool, so as not to offend, hurt and compromise future opportunities. This in mind, the problem as mentioned in the report, is probably understated. The people we are talking about here have never felt the need to criticise Robert Mugabe; they just make sure they fly under the radar. Tony Trahar and Neil Pretorius of DRD remains two of very few  miners who had the gall to openly attack government and government departments, on these issues, Trahar’s reward for his effort was to, be branded a racist sell-out by Thabo Mbeki. The lack of protestations from the mine owners and potential investors, coupled with the flight of capital from the mining sector, confirms that actions speak louder than words. People may consider the silence of the investors and decision makers to be tacit condonation, their actions when they withdraw investments and participation, often under the guise of economic pressure, indicates otherwise. Their intent is shown by their actions and it is only the naïve and stubborn that ignores BHP Billiton who, despite having some of their roots in this country, sold assets (Samancor Chrome and recently their interesting in Petmin) whilst limiting new investments. Other Tier 1 Miners limiting investment includes Lonmin, Barrick and Rio Tinto, whilst Anglo-Ashanti, Goldfields and Norilsk have escape strategies in place, or are in the process of setting up such strategies. The naïve may insist on believing that the sale of Anglo-Ashanti had nothing to do with getting rid of the South African operations and the management restructuring at Goldfields was done in the interest of corporate efficiency. Foreign investment in South Africa reduced to a trickle in 2008 with an effective outflow in the last quarter. The JSE, during the past week , has been almost devoid of any foreign players.

The realists, the investors that vote with their money, sees a new South Africa with a strongly left leaning government with a lot of power in the hands of the Unions. They see a government where left leaning leaders with a labour background, Vavi and Mantashe, holding sway over economic and fiscal policy decisions. The actions and anarchy shown in the latest SATAWU strike – amidst desperate economic conditions and the worst lay-offs in South African history – are indicative of what can be expected in future. They see a continuing stubborn adherence to AA  in it’s current form, despite the failures and irreparable harm done to the economy to date They see a place where they will operate with their rights, to the minerals they mine, held over their heads like a sword. They clearly, in their mind, hear the words of Vavi saying to Manuel; “we know where to squeeze you if you step out of line”. With the likes of Gwede Mantashe having declared the intent of the government to establish a State owed mining company, investors can see the nationalisation of their assets becoming a real possibility, this despite assurances to the contrary. 

The sad part of this is the fact that people do not speak out. This “quiet diplomacy” is doing the country irreparable harm. We must heed the words of Mamphela Rhampele when she urges us to speak out against what is wrong, even at the prospect of being called racist and “Counter-revolutionary”.


The Mean South African Killing Machine

April 23, 2009

The poor safety performance of the South African mining industry is often compared to mine safety performance in developed countries, such as Australia, Canada and the USA. These comparisons show that an individual working in a mine in South Africa is eighteen times more likely to be killed than a person employed ion a mine in Australia. It also shows that we are ten times more likely to be killed while driving to work than our Australian counterparts, while the likelihood of being murdered before getting into the vehicle is 60 times higher. In spite of these alarming figures, I have not heard calls for draconian fines and imprisonment for Ministers, Government Officials or others responsible for Transport, Road Safety and Safety and Security such as those that have been suggested for mine owners/managers. To the contrary, some of the government ministers accountable for these departments seem to be gaining in stature.

On the other hand, pity the mine owners and operators who face draconian penalties if a miner suffers a fatal injury on the job. Which raises an important question – How will the call for the imprisonment of owners and/or management prevent accidents that are in most cases the fault of employees who come from an environment where the population at large has such a lax attitude towards safety and risk?

If this is the status quo in society at large, why should we be surprised when we hear about another mine death?  What is surprising is the denial of any responsibility or accountability for any accident or injury of any kind by the workers’ representatives, in particular the NUM. Workplace fatalities are singularly attributed to the behaviour and attitude of the owner/management’s,” profit  above everything’’ motive. Seldom, if ever, is the outcome of the official investigation into the fatality given anywhere near the same attention, which indicates that the reporting of such incidents has become emotional and not analytical.

Because of these relentless attacks on management and mine owners, we have reached a situation where the call by unions for draconian measures- such as exorbitant fines and imprisonment- are actually considered by the Minister. Any reasonable person will accept the suggestion of drastic measures against anyone found to be negligent. This rule should however, not only apply to management; it should also apply to workers who cause injury or death to themselves and others. Perhaps a worker, killed as result of his own risk taking or negligence, should forfeit any insurance payouts to his family. A draconian measure? Most certainly, but so is putting a person in jail because someone died on a mine for which he carries overall responsibility yet cannot control the behaviour of irresponsible employees. As it stands, mine owners have taken drastic measures against senior executives in response to poor safety performance. Do we need to be reminded of similar threats to managers during the nineties when it was suggested that Mine Health and Safety Act be amended to hold managers guilty until proven innocent, a legal principle not applied to the vilest of crimes in society.

What is largely being ignored in the media and in the public domain is the simple fact that Mining is inherently risky. Deep level labour-intensive mining as practiced in South Africa is particularly hazardous and the best way to make these places perfectly safe is to stay the hell out of there and opt for subsistence farming. The main risk attributing factors are the physical operating environment, which include geological features, geophysical and geothermal factors. Other, often more critical and manageable factors include; skill, culture and behaviour of employees (including management, supervisors and workers) and finally engineering factors such as machines, chemicals and tools.

The impact of people factors, including experience, training and culture, on our poor safety performance, are largely ignored and are therefor not adequately addressed. The South African mining industry, operates in one of the most challenging mining environments in the world, and does so with a poorly equipped human resource pool. Even the Chinese with their atrocious mine safety record, are able to draw from a higher worker skills base to operate their mines.

The South African mining industry spends more than anyone else in this country on training and education and it is in these areas that government and labour can contribute greatly by becoming party to them. It is however important that their participation is based on a genuine desire and not the political agendas and ideology of a few individuals. The role of government should be that of coordinator and legislator, while labour should assist by campaigning for the freeing up of funds tied up in ineffective Setas and assisting mine management in setting up workable and effective training programmes. Establishing such proper training will contribute much more to mine safety than astronomical fines and criminal charges leveled against mine management.

The South African safety culture issue is very well illustrated by an observation whilst driving from Pretoria to Rustenburg a while ago. Driving past an informal settlement I could not help but noticing some peculiarities, maybe that is not the right way to put it, it would have been peculiar if I were driving in most other countries. Majakaneng is separated from the highway by a concrete fence constructed on either side of the road to prevent inhabitants of the settlement from crossing the road in an unsafe way or at an unsafe place. Two pedestrian bridges and two multi-purpose, (car- and pedestrian) bridges have been constructed as safe “crossings”.  Everything seemed normal until I noticed the gaps that have been opened at a number of places along the fence.  Making these gaps would have required substantial tools and force. Some of them were made within fifty metres from the pedestrian bridges and people were crossing the road in the face of oncoming traffic instead of using the pedestrian bridges.

There can be little justification for such blatant high-risk behaviour.  In the first place the people doing this has to be just plain lazy.  The second reason could be that there is a lot of truth in the perception, “life is cheap” in South Africa.  A third reason is a culture of risk taking that can be linked to the “life is cheap” culture.  We see this behavior in many aspects of our daily life.  It is evident in the way we use the roads, the risks taken when people make illegal electrical connections to the power grid. We see it in schools where violence is the order of the day with children attacking each other with the intent to kill and the popular “Train surfing” in the township. South Africans do not value life and they show scant respect for lives of others.

Most of the people living in Majakaneng are employed by the surrounding mines and the person employed by a mine in the area is, most likely, the person that made the hole in the fence and took the risk crossing of the road.  I cannot think of any reason why this risk taker will change his behavior when he goes underground to work his shift.  He arrives at work daily, puts on his personal protective equipment, because it is visible and can be policed.  Unfortunately, he does not take off his undesired attitude to safety and risk when he is forced to don his hardhat and other protective equipment. We see risk taking and a total disregard for life beyond the workplace and the roads. Only in South Africa does people, diagnosed with Multi-drug Resistant TB (XDR-TB), escape from hospital to go home and effectively deliver a death sentence to family and friends.

The South African mining industry spends more money than any other South African industry on training and education. It is in training and education where government and labour can contribute greatly to the reduction of risk to life and limb in mines by becoming party to training initiatives put in place by the mining companies. It is however important that their participation are based on desire and not political agendas and ideology. The role of government should be one of coordination and legislation whilst labour should assist in pressurising the freeing up of funds tied up in ineffective Setas and assist management in setting up workable and effective training programs based on effective and valid analysis of industry needs. Establishing focused training will add more to mine safety than fines and criminal charges.

To continue to blame mine deaths on an owner/management drive for profit is mischievous and counter productive and impact negatively by shifting focus away from the real issues. The current approach by the unions and the DME, is one of the reasons causing investors to avoid and in some cases setting up escape strategies from South African mining. Mine owners, for many years, have been monitoring the cost of accidents and concluded that the cost of accidents erodes profit and impacts negatively on the image of mining as an investment option.  With current policy of labour organisations to stop mining every time a fatal accident occurs, it is a no-brainer to suggest that any mine manager/ owner will consider that mine deaths can have a positive impact on profit or any benefit at all. Every mine manager knows the cost of a one-day strike costs his company millions in revenue. Every mine owner and manager realises that mine injuries and fatalities does not only erode profits but will eventually close mines down. It is therefore nothing less than callous provocation to suggest people are killed because of a profit motive of owners and management.

In the mean time, I suggest the South African mining industry get rid of their masochistic characteristics and low self-esteem. I refer of course to an article in the Sunday Time a while ago when, Chris Barron, in the Business Times, asked the question, “Why do South African mines have the worst fatality rate in the world?” This question was not answered by the interviewee. This immediately created the perception that Barron expressed a fact and Mr. Mine Safety agreed. In reality, South Africa does not come close to the worst mine fatality rate in the world. In the interview the interviewee, a safety manager from Angloplats, went further and explained that their new CEO brought a new and improved attitude towards mine safety, suggesting that South Africans are not up to the task. Maybe Mr. Safety should be reminded how many South Africans run divisions of large global mining houses and low and behold, even entire global mining companies. Maybe in his world BHP Billiton, Xstrata, Rio Tinto and Barrick are considered small.

Hello world!

April 22, 2009

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