(Recasts with comments on CEO liability)
By Ed Stoddard and Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN, Feb 7 (Reuters) - South Africa’s mines minister said on Tuesday that industry chief executives should be held liable for avoidable fatalities, also raising the possibility of court action.
Targeting chief executives would take her safety drive to new levels as the government tries to stem the death toll in the country’s mines, the world’s deepest and among the most dangerous.
“Fatalities which could have been avoided, we feel that CEOs must be held liable for those accidents, because they are responsible for the operations. As they show interest in how they grow the profits they must also show interest in safety,” Susan Shabangu told Reuters in an interview.
Asked if this meant possible court action, she said: “These are some of the issues that we must look at. For me the courts are the last option. But legislation provides for us to go to courts.”
Earlier she told the annual African mining conference in Cape Town that the platinum industry’s contribution to fatalities in the mining sector remained a “serious concern” and defended safety stoppages which she said had contributed to a drop in accident rates.
South Africa’s platinum sector has been battered by oversupply, squeezed margins and an uncertain economic outlook, making producers increasingly vocal about regulatory pressures, particularly the impact of inspections and stoppages as part of the government’s zero-harm target.
“The department has been greatly concerned about lack of improvement in compliance and fatalities in the major platinum mines,” Shabangu said.
“The platinum sector alone contributes about 30 percent of all fatalities which remains a serious concern.”
The gold sector has also been subject to increased scrutiny and Graham Briggs, chief executive of Harmony Gold, South Africa’s third largest gold producer, described the government’s campaign on Monday as punitive.
Harmony cut its full-year output target by 13 percent because of the stoppages.
Shabangu said that there was a slight drop in mining fatalities to 123 in 2011 from 127 in 2010 and that 13 miners have been killed so far this year in South Africa.
She also said in her speech that the governing African National Congress (ANC) had reinforced in a key policy document that nationalisation, long feared by the country’s mining industry, was not a viable option.
“I must indicate that we welcome the fact that the report of the ANC task team on nationalisation has reinforced the ANC’s earlier decision that nationalisation is not a viable policy for South Africa,” she said. (Editing by Veronica Brown)