SOUTH AFRICA: Old perils resurface as trapped S African miners emerge alive
Alfred Kgomela's eyes were red with exhaustion but still he would not relinquish his post. The 32-year-old miner had been waiting outside the second shaft of South Africa's Elandsrand gold mine for more than 12 hours for a sign that his best friend Robert was alive.
Every time the winch whirred into life - signalling the imminent rescue from the depths of another group of the 3,200 miners who had been trapped more than a mile underground for 24 hours - he gazed at the mine head. "It is so stressful," he said. "I am so shocked." He broke off amid an outbreak of whoops and whistles, as a fresh batch of rescued miners emerged, blinking into the sunlight.
The scene, at Harmony Gold's Elandsrand mine, 50 miles west of Johannesburg, early yesterday was all too familiar to veterans of South African mining. Since gold was found in the Witwatersrand basin in the 1880s, South Africa's gold mines have been known for their riches but also their perils.
By late afternoon the fretting - and that old mining families' nightmare of losing a relation underground - was all but over. Most of the miners trapped on Wednesday after a compressed air pipe at the top of the main shaft snapped, severing power cables and damaging the shaft's steel structure, had been rescued. The rest were expected to be above ground by nightfall.
But recriminations over the accident are reverberating through the industry. If one of the cages had been in motion when the cable broke, there could have been scores of casualties. "It was pure luck," said Stan Bierschenk, general manager of the mine.
Buyelwa Sonjica, the minister of minerals and energy, ordered the mine to be closed for six weeks. As she toured the scene she made clear the government would put more pressure on mining companies to improve their safety record. "We do appreciate that mining is a risky operation," she told the Financial Times. "But we can still reduce the risk."
She pointedly commended the stance of Cynthia Carroll, chief executive of Anglo American, the London-listed mining company, whose mantra since taking over seven months ago has been zero casualties. "She's al-ready fired one CEO," Ms Sonjica said in a reference to the former CEO of Anglo Platinum, Ralph Havenstein, who was forced out in July.
"Those attitudes are what we want. But there is laxity. People are doing things as they used to. There is no sense of urgency."
The annual death toll in mines in South Africa has declined steadily in the past two decades to 199 last year as the industry and the government have imposed stricter standards, but gold mines, the deepest in the world, are still deemed particularly hazardous.
Harmony, the world's fifth largest gold-producer, said it had checked the pipe that caused the Elandsrand accident last weekend, as part of its weekly inspection of equipment in the 31-year-old mine. The National Union of Mineworkers accused the company of doing only a perfunctory check and also blamed its practice of working round the clock with three eight-hour shifts.
"They should have detected the weakness," said Eric Gcilitshana, the union's secretary of health and safety. "They just did checklist checking and not proper checking."
Experienced mining managers argue a casualty-free industry is impossible. South Africa's gold production has halved in the past decade as companies face the challenge of ever more expensive and deeper operations. In 2006 it was 275 tons, compared with 1,000 tons in 1970.
Patrice Motsepe, chairman of Harmony, said: "As an industry and company our record is in desperate need of continuous improvement."
"To lose 200 employees a year is totally unacceptable," he told the FT. "We at Harmony will look at ourselves. There has been improvement. But there's a lot of work to do."
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