by David Capel

Boom and bust

Dr Thuthula Balfour-Kaipa, head of health at the Chamber of Mines, on mine health and safety, women in mining and the challenges going forward


The bedrock upon which South Africa was built – amid much blood, sweat and tears – the mining industry is subject like no other to significant peaks and troughs. When it’s good, it’s very good, and when it’s bad, it’s bad indeed.

Dr Thuthula Balfour-Kaipa, Head of the Health Department at the Chamber of Mines, describes mining as recently having experienced “boom or bust” scenarios. It is an industry that Chamber president Mike Teke has described as having long, harsh winters, but with some “beautiful summers” in between. It’s cyclical, and at the moment it’s at the bottom of the cycle.

She says compounding the problem is the fact that the South African mining industry missed the last boom, in the 2000’s, and now the work is on to restructure the sector.

“The industry in South Africa has currently got limited cash reserves as it didn’t benefit from the last boom, and the key challenges right now are around the fall in demand for mining commodities due to the international economic slowdown, particularly in China,” Balfour-Kaipa explains. The other factors are the rising costs of electricity,  labour and other inputs.

“We always say we are a price taker when it comes to minerals. Prices are set on international markets. When they fall, the only thing we can do is to reduce our costs if we are to be competitive.

“But we always need to remember that we actually have a distinct comparative advantage when it comes to minerals.

"We have vast resources. Eighty percent of the world’s platinum resources are in South Africa, for instance, but all this means nothing if we are not getting them from underground and selling them at a competitive price. As much as we have that comparative advantage (in terms of our vast mineral resources) we are struggling when it comes to being competitive,” she says.

South Africa also has other, unique challenges, stemming from its turbulent past. Apartheid, says Balfour-Kaipa, particularly as it was experienced by black mineworkers, resulted in most black South Africans being at best ambivalent or, at worst, hostile towards the mining industry.

A different trajectory

“The development we have seen in South Africa over the past 100 years is based substantially on mining,” she says. “Mining is what made South Africa and put it onto a very different trajectory compared to the rest of the continent. But it came at a cost, because of our history, where mining was seen by black South Africans as part and parcel of the ‘white South African economy’.  It wasn’t about what the people of South Africa needed, and was seen as being very tied up with apartheid and the exploitation of black people”.

Balfour-Kaipa says it is for this reason that black South Africans find it difficult to truly embrace mining, “This is something that we all need to work at. We need to appreciate that we have got this far in terms of development, and we have to get over negative perceptions of mining, because the sooner we do that the more we can all really benefit from the industry”.

A medical doctor, with qualifications in public health and occupational health, Balfour-Kaipa specialises in public health medicine. This, of course, involves prevention, and one of her key roles at the Chamber is to try to reduce mineworkers’ exposure to occupational diseases.

TB and HIV/Aids (though the latter is not an occupational disease) are, of course, among the most high-risk diseases in mining and Balfour-Kaipa says significant progress has been made in recent years in meeting these twin challenges.

She points out that a Department of Mineral Resources survey found an increase in percentage of employees counselled for HIV from 54.2% to 55.7%, and increase in those screened for TB from 73% to 81% between 2013 and 2014.

Screening campaign

On a positive note, in December last year the departments of Health and of Mineral Resources, the four primary mining unions – the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Solidarity, UASA and the Chamber of Mines launched a major TB screening campaign across the sector.

The “Masoyise iTB” initiative will run over three years and forms part of broader national campaign announced by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier last year on World TB Day, under the theme “Ending South Africa’s TB epidemic: Accelerating our response in Key Populations”.

She says in the 2000’s the TB rate in mines was three to seven times higher than the national figure, “but now we have made so much progress that even some of the gold companies, which have the biggest challenge, have rates of about 1.5 times the overall SA TB rate, which is phenomenal”.

Regarding women in mining, Balfour-Kaipa says this is a major area of transformation.

Whereas for decades women were not allowed to work underground, the country’s new dispensation now enables them to do so.

Challenges remain, however. For example, when it comes to the size and style of clothing for women underground, many mining houses are still lagging behind.

Feeling accepted

“Women are smaller than men so their shoe size will be smaller, as would their overalls. Women are naturally different to men, so the way their overalls are designed should be different. All these things determine whether women have a good experience and feel accepted in the mining industry. 

“And I think the challenge really for the industry is for all of us to scrutinise women’s role in our mines on a daily basis, looking at all of these small things because when companies take care of the small things they show women that they care”.

In a country and an industry steeped in chauvinism it should come as no surprise to know that sexual harassment is still a major problem on South African mines but one which, says Balfour-Kaipa, is being addressed through educational programmes.

Regarding outstanding female success stories in the male-dominated world of SA mining, she points to Daphne Mashile-Nkosi, Executive chairperson of Kalagadi Manganese and

Khanyisile Kweyama, former Anglo American director and new CEO of Business Unity South Africa (Busa) as shining examples of the strides women have made in recent years.

“This doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to be done. The Mining Charter requires that 10% of employees should be women, and I think the industry has done fairly well regarding this target but more work remains,” she says.

Problem solving 

Balfour-Kaipa calls for “effective problem solving partnerships” between government and labour. 

She points to the tri-partite Mining Industry Growth Development and Employment Task Team (MIGDETT) as one of the mechanisms that could be used in this regard.

Most of the negotiations and discussions about transformation in general, and the Mining Charter in particular are held under the auspices of MIGDETT, in which the Chamber represents the mandated positions of its members.

The Chamber also leads the delegation of members when the industry is required to present to Parliament on the progress made by the mining industry in respect of the Mining Charter.

An important function of the Chamber is to participate with government and others in setting the ‘rules of the game’, for example in devising Mining Charter targets and methods for measuring compliance with them.

“We have to grow our industry, and make it competitive, while at the same time transforming it.  That is the key to a sustainable mining industry.”

David Capel

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