South Africa to allow mines to operate at 50% capacity during lockdown

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa will allow mines to operate at up to 50% capacity during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, according to amended regulations published on Thursday.

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The government had ordered most underground mines and furnaces to be put on care and maintenance during the lockdown, apart from coal mines supplying state power utility Eskom.

Miners have been lobbying the government to allow them to resume production with controls in place to detect and contain COVID-19, the sometimes fatal respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

South Africa is the world’s biggest producer of chrome ore, accounts for around 70% of global mined platinum supply and is a major producer of other minerals and metals.

The lockdown, which started on March 27 and has been extended until the end of April, has hit global commodities markets since several local miners have cut their production plans or declared force majeure, which exonerates them from contractual obligations.

Mines minister Gwede Mantashe told a news conference the government knew there was a chance of instability if some deep-level mines were closed for an extended period.

“In the amendment we are identifying a risk, particularly in deep mining, (that) if they are left alone for a long time the stability of the ground gets tampered with,” he said.

South Africa is home to some of the world’s deepest mines, some of which are nearly 4 km (2.5 miles) deep.

Minerals Council South Africa, an industry body, welcomed the revised regulations.

“It is Minerals Council’s view that government has adopted a pragmatic and practical approach to fighting the pandemic and enabling the economy to survive the crisis,” its CEO Roger Baxter said.

The amended rules say mines will be allowed to restart and increase capacity subject to conditions, including the screening of employees for COVID-19 symptoms, the availability of quarantine facilities and transport arrangements for workers.

After the lockdown, it will be up to Minister Mantashe to determine how mines ramp up beyond 50% of capacity.

Cooperative Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said the government planned to ease other lockdown restrictions in an “orderly, incremental manner”.

“We are going to be probably every week announcing which areas are being opened and the conditions of those openings,” she said. “Industries will have to slowly come on stream.”

As of Thursday, South Africa had reported 2,605 people infected with the coronavirus and 48 deaths.

Additional reporting by Alexander Winning and Wendell Roelf; Editing by Jan Harvey, Barbara Lewis and Mark Heinrich