The Great South African Mining Disaster

Nic Holland, upon taking over at the helm at Goldfields, vowed to close down working places considered a safety risk. Being a man of his word and having the integrity of an old-style accountant he carefully assessed the risks and duly started shutting down workings considered to risky. Having not done the “Mining Math” properly in the first place, he found, perhaps too late, that he will eventually have risk free operations. That was however not the only reality that dawned upon him – he also found no risk means no gold and after all, that is what Goldfields is all about – mining gold. With every risky place they stopped the gold output fell inexplicably; A difficult concept? Not really. Most call it common sense. As the saying goes; you do not make scrambled eggs without breaking a few eggs.

Nic Holland was not the only one trying to get rid of the “risky” operations. Anglo American’s Cynthia Carroll went a bit further and sold all of AngloGold Ashanti, getting rid of a whole whack of dangerous operations in one foul swoop. She went further and then publicly claimed a massive reduction in mining related fatalities at Anglo – a novel variation on the concept of selling your problems to the uninformed – in this case selling your deaths, sweetened with a splattering of gold to the unsuspecting foreigners. Fortunately in this case the foreigners got a bit more than a smattering of gold with the Africa operations that came with the South African assets. My reckoning; if Julius and friends succeed in nationalising the South African mines with compensation the foreigners can get rid of the South African poison pill – the deal of a lifetime.

As this drama continues to unfold, South African mining production continues to fall sharply. At a time when the gold price is at its most favourable in decades, South African gold production has reached an all time low of 232 tonnes, less than half the 490 tonnes produced in 1985 and falling ever faster. Ironically, as the gold production from South Africa was dragged down by labour issues, government regulation and risk aversion, output from the rest of the world, particularly the rest of Africa and China rose sharply.

Looking at the latest round of reporting by mining companies, it is particularly noticeable how many companies reported a great number of production days lost due to safety issues a new inclusion in their reports. As in the case of Goldfields, the South African mining industry will come to the realisation that the easiest way to ensure no risk is to shut the mines down.

With the loss of 15 000 jobs in the mining industry in 2009, a year when resource prices were showing a recovery  from the global recession with the gold price reaching an all time high, South African mineral production continued to fall.   

Having said that, it is particularly noticeable how the cause of accidents and the reasons for Section 54’s, Mine closure orders, are glibly attributed to the owners and management. When an incompetent and reckless miner, holding a certificate issued under the auspices of the relative government department, blows himself and his colleagues up by smoking in an area which he has tested as being laden with methane, management is blamed, the mine is closed down and the bad and twisted – by the Union and the Department of mineral Resources – publicity, loss in production and subsequent revenue loss accrues to shareholder.

No wonder Patrice Motsepe is so keen to give his mines to Julius Inc., compliments the South African taxpayer. He learned from Cynthia Carroll.

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