Adherence of Covid-19 regulations & roll-out of vaccines in sector: DMRE & MINCOSA briefings

Mineral Resources and Energy

10 February 2021


DMRE: Update on the adherence of COVID-19 Regulations and Protocols

Mincosa: COVID-19 Update

Meeting Summary

Video: Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources and Energy

The Committee met in a virtual meeting with the Minerals Council of South Africa and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. The core of the meeting was to discuss the adherence to COVID-19 protocols and possible initiatives concerning the roll-out of vaccines in the sector.

The Minerals Council presented statistical trends in the mining sector for COVID-19. Due to the second wave of the pandemic, there were many positive cases recorded although this surge was coupled with a high recovery rate. The Council educated mine workers about COVID-19. It collaborated with the Department of Health to effectively screen workers that were returning to work from their homes in neighbouring countries. It also outlined its plan for the vaccine roll-out.

The Department of Mineral Resources outlined the legal framework it used to ensure adherence to COVID-19 regulations and protocols. It also reported on the instances of COVID-19 infections, recoveries and deaths amongst the employees of the Department and the entities for which it is responsible.

There was agreement between the Department and the Council that combatting COVID-19 was only possible through collaboration. Both entities were happy about how they engaged each other throughout the pandemic.

The Committee was happy with the work done by the two entities and commended how they collaborated during this period. However, there were questions about how the vaccination process was going to be carried out in the working environment given that the President stipulated that no one was to be forced to vaccinate. Members asked to what extent it was possible to vaccinate millions of employees and their families, in a space of three months. There were questions about the statistics, which were not consistent in some instances. The concern was also raised on the report from the Department that some companies were failing to provide basic protective equipment to their employees.

The Committee adopted its programme for future meetings after the main agenda had been dealt with. In this section of the meeting, Committee Members expressed their disappointment with how their programme was constantly cancelled and interrupted by other decision makers in Parliament. One member said that the Committee was treated unfairly compared to other Portfolio Committees, and that the Chairperson had to confront whoever was making those decisions. It was agreed that a meeting in the second term would be devoted to issues of the Carbon Tax and technologies needed to use coal in a clean way, and according to global emission standards.

Meeting report

The Chairperson welcomed everyone to the meeting. He shared with everyone that approximately 13 Members of Parliament had succumbed to COVID-19, and that he had also lost a significant number of relatives to the virus. Therefore, it was important to take the pandemic seriously. The agenda was the adherence of the COVID-19 regulations and protocols by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), and the Minerals Council of South Africa (MINCOSA). He introduced the delegations from both entities and noted apologies from the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Mr Gwede Mantashe, and Mr V Zungula (ATM). He welcomed Mr J Lorimer (DA) in place of Ms C Phillips (DA), and asked Mr Mileham to thank Ms Phillips on his behalf for her dedication in the work of the Committee. He then proceeded to invite the MINCOSA to provide their update.

Mr Roger Baxter, Chief Executive Officer, Minerals Council, greeted everyone and introduced his delegation. Before handing over the platform to them, he outlined the work that the Council had been busy with during the pandemic. These included the Oxygen campaign in the Eastern Cape. Emphasis, however, was on the collaborative work that the Council embarked on with the DMRE, and other complementary entities of the Department.

Dr Thuthula Balfour, Head of Health, Minerals Council, greeted everyone and thanked the Committee for having her. Overall, the COVID-19 testing rate in the mining sector increased in 2021. It was well above both the global and national testing rate. This was partly attributed to collaboration between the MINCOSA and mining companies. Records showed that there was a high recovery rate and that infection cases had dropped in the working space despite the second wave. Notwithstanding this positive feedback, the number of deaths did not necessarily drop in 2021. While the presentation shows that there were 319 deaths, records before 15 December 2020 showed that there were approximately 200 deaths. This was indicative of how ferocious the second COVID-19 wave was. This was illustrated in slide 3.

The distribution of deaths according to commodities mined was higher in the platinum industry and the North West province. This was expected considering that platinum had the highest number of employees in the sector. However, analysis on the percentage of deaths suggested that the gold industry had the largest proportion of deaths.

The statistics on deaths were dissected into gender, age and employees who died because of complications associated with comorbidities. The death rate among male employees was higher that of female employees. The gender of 2.2% employees was unknown. Overall, deaths were higher between the ages of 40 and 59. This confirmed that while infections were prevalent among the younger age group, deaths were mostly higher in the older age group. It was a similar trend for deaths related to comorbidities.

Mr Nikisi Lesufi, Senior Executive: Environment, Health and Legacies, said the MINCOSA, responding to the second wave of infections, provided employees with additional information about preventative measures against COVID-19. It encouraged them not to return home to hotspot areas. It collaborated with the Ministry of Health to effectively screen returning foreign workers from their respective homes. This was specifically done because COVID-19 test facilities in neighbouring countries were compromised.

Mr Baxter said the implementation of the vaccination strategy was greatly dependent on the government. The MINCOSA offered its infrastructure and skilled personnel to help with the vaccine roll-out. It was hoped that 60 000 to 80 000 mine employees were going to be vaccinated per day. Although the country was slowly getting past the second wave, there was a possibility of a third wave in winter. However, this third wave was strongly dependant on the immunity of the population. This illustrated the critical need for an immediate vaccine programme.

Adv. Thabo Mokoena, Director-General, DMRE, greeted everyone and introduced his team. His presentation focused on the Department and its employees. A COVID-19 steering committee was established, and a Compliance Officer was appointed. Other measures included the provision of Personnel Protective Equipment (PPE) to all employees as well as the daily screening of employees and visitors that entered the DMRE’s offices.

In terms of provinces, Gauteng offices had the largest number of infections and fatalities. It was followed by DMRE offices in the North West and the Northern Cape. The recovery rate was quite high, and the number of recorded fatalities was also low. In total, there were 91 recorded infections, 82 recoveries, seven active cases and three fatalities in the Department itself. Within State Owned Enterprises (SoEs), MINTEK and the Council for Geoscience (CGS) had the highest reported cases. The South African Diamond and Precious Metals Regulator had the third largest recorded cases followed by the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI). The recovery rate was high and there were no recorded fatalities. Statistics also showed that home related infections were greater than work related ones.

Mr David Msiza, Inspector of Mines, said that the DMRE collaborated with the Department of Health (DoH), the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), the Department of Employment and Labour and organised labour and employers. In these collaborations, the Minister was actively involved with engaging various stakeholders in the sector.

Various legislative frameworks were relied upon and compliance monitoring was in place. Guidelines in line with the Disaster Management Act, Section 27 (2) of 2002 were provided to all stakeholders. This was followed by the provision of various auditing tools outlined in the presentation. A total of 6 036 cumulative inspections were conducted, and more Section 54 Instructions of the Mine Health and Safety Act were issued than Section 55 Instructions of the same legislation.

Challenges remained. Inspections and audits revealed that some companies did not have sufficient PPEs, lacked Codes of Practice (CoP), had minimal engagements with organised labour when developing CoPs, and lacked the involvement of skilled medical practitioners in drafting their COVID-19 procedures. Moving forward, the DMRE said it was committed to continue collaborating with all stakeholders on implementing measures for the management of COVID-19. Special emphasis was put on the collaboration between the Department and the MINCOSA throughout the course of the pandemic.

The Chairperson thanked both the DMRE and the MINCOSA for their presentations and opened the floor for discussion.

Mr K Mileham (DA) commended the MINCOSA for having a strong COVID-19 vaccine programme. However, he asked for clarity on the protocols that needed to be followed to execute this given the President’s instruction that no one was to be forced to take the vaccine. The existence of this option potentially led to a situation where mining companies allowed employees to work in enclosed mining spaces without being vaccinated. To ensure everyone’s safety in the working space and the efficient rolling out of the vaccine, what protocols had the MINCOSA and the DMRE put in place?

Ms V Malinga (ANC) asked to what extent was it possible for the MINCOSA to vaccinate between 2-3 million employees, and their families, in a space of three months. Considering reports by state media that the country had about 1.2 million health workers (both public and private), who was going to execute this task? She asked the MINCOSA to explain what they meant by unknown gender in the pie chart they used to describe the distribution of COVID-19 mortality in the sector (slide 7). Finally, she asked if the DMRE was worried it would lose personnel, given the 28 000 plus infections in the sector. What plans had they put in place to mitigate this rapid spread of the virus?

Mr M Mahlaule (ANC) also expressed concerns about the “unknown gender” reported by the MINCOSA in its presentation. He acknowledged that it was possible for the gender to be unknown but suggested that an explanation had to be given to the Committee as to why this was so. He expressed great concerns about the inconsistent presentation of COVID-19 statistics (as of 31 January 2021) in the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) by the DMRE. For example, MINTEK had 31 reported cases of which 25 of these individuals were confirmed to have recovered. Since it was also reported that there were zero fatalities in the company, where were the other six employees not accounted for in the statistics. Apart from this, he was happy with the vaccine preparedness displayed by both the MINCOSA and the DMRE.  Most importantly, he applauded the collaboration between the two entities in the fight against COVID-19 in the sector. He was also impressed by the DMRE’s breakdown of COVID-19 infections to work and home related. He said that working from home did not necessarily imply that one was clear of the virus. Therefore, he greatly appreciated the effort put by the DMRE to dissect the trends of infection in that manner.

Ms P Madokwe (EFF) asked for more clarity on the situation in the sector. While the MINCOSA gave the impression that everything was under control, the DMRE reported that there were instances where mines lacked PPEs. Given this background, how was it possible that both entities were now prioritising the procurement of vaccines, yet some mines were alleged to lack the most equipment that could have easily prevented the spread of the virus in the sector? She requested clarity on the outcomes, and implications, of the 6 000 inspections and audits conducted by the DMRE. Apart from this exercise and the issuing of instructions (as outlined in slide number 12), what other “harsher” measures were enforced by the DMRE to ensure that all mining entities adhered to the COVID-19 regulations? For instance, mines without PPEs could have been forced to shut down until they have all the necessary equipment. Lastly, she commended the MINCOSA for proposing to offer funds for the procurement of vaccines. Considering the severity of the pandemic, help from all directions was sincerely welcomed. Since this was not the first time she learnt about this proposal, she kindly asked for more details on when it was forwarded by the MINCOSA, when the DMRE was going to respond to it, and when it was going to be actioned out.

Mr Baxter responded that the MINCOSA had no intention to force mining personnel to take vaccines and emphasised that such an approach was against the entity’s code of conduct. However, it simply encouraged individuals to consider taking the vaccine. For example, the 90% test rate in 2019 for Tuberculosis was because employees agreed to be part of the exercise not because they were forced, but because “it was the right thing to do”. Therefore, information was shared with employees to encourage them to make health related decisions. The Council had engaged with trade unions and the DMRE to “encourage the sharing of real facts” about how vaccines work. Given the false information about the COVID-19 vaccines, employees needed to know that the vaccination programme was not a conspiracy to plant a chip on one’s shoulder to monitor their operations. Despite the existence of such misinformation in the marketplace, it was anticipated that there was going to be a high take up of vaccines. In addition, he said that in the future there were going to be “top ups” in the form of “food jabs” to fight against emerging variants of the virus.

In response to the question on the practicality of vaccinating more than a million employees in three months, Mr Baxter replied that the Council had sufficient capacity of both infrastructure and skilled medical staff. As illustrated in the presentation, the target was to vaccinate 60 000 employees per day. However, these where simply proposed strategies as the vaccine was yet to arrive. Most of these plans were reliant on the government – the sole procurer of the vaccines. Organised business in the form of Business for South Africa (b4sa) also contributed significantly, on a logistical level, towards the procurement of vaccines. Much of the help was in cold chain storage to handle vaccines.

Addressing the issue about the “unknown” gender, Dr Balfour said the MINCOSA accumulated its statistics from different companies, and that some of them did not provide adequate information about the ages and genders of the victims. This information was available in the companies in question although the MINCOSA could not immediately access it. She said only one or two individuals fell in this bracket of unknown gender.

Before asking Dr Balfour to respond to Ms Malinga’s question on whether the Department was worried about the 28 000 plus positive cases recorded in the sector, Mr Baxter highlighted that the increased number of cases was a result of the strong testing protocols that were adopted by the industry. Compared to the national testing protocols, he said the MINCOSA carried out its tests at a more rapid rate, and that the number of COVID-19 cases was bound to be high.

Dr Balfour agreed with his comments and emphasised that the high number of positive cases recorded was a function of the high number of tests taken. These large numbers, however, did not necessarily translate to high mortality. She said the sector recorded very few deaths.

Replying to Ms Madokwe’s questions, Mr Baxter replied that there were many small mining companies that were not part of the MINCOSA. However, it ensured that those that were Minerals Council members were aware of protocols and complied with regulations. Therefore, it was unlikely that companies under its sphere of influence were the ones issued with Mine Health and Safety Act Sections 54 and 55 notices [on COVID-19 issues].

Mr Baxter said MINCOSA’s initial proposal to contribute was mainly to procure vaccines. However, the government, through the National Treasury, clearly indicated that it was its sole responsibility to procure vaccines. Despite such protocols, the Council remained committed to assist in the rolling-out of vaccines. It pledged its infrastructure and skilled personnel to help with the vaccination efforts. This was an “in kind” contribution roughly around R300 and R400 million. To reinforce the MINCOSA’s commitment to the efforts, engagements had already been made with both the Ministers of the DMRE and Health, as well as the DGs of the DMRE and Health. He said currently the Council was rigorously preparing itself for when the vaccines arrived.

Mr Msiza said collaboration was key to the fight against COVID-19 in the sector. He welcomed the praise that both the DMRE and the MINCOSA was receiving for their collaborative efforts. In response to Ms Malinga’s question on concerns about the 28 000 plus infections in the sector, the DMRE was working closely with the MINCOSA. Although this was quite a high number of infections, he said what was encouraging was the high recovery rate. Moreover, the Department continued to encourage companies in the sector to follow diligently the protocols that were put in place. On the question about PPEs, he explained that these were issues that were identified after audits and inspections.

Mr Msiza pointed out that the Department had issued more Section 54 instructions of the Mine Health and Safety Act than Section 55. He explained that whereas Section 55 of the Act was mainly concerned with compliance, Section 54 was more action driven. For instance, under Section 54 the inspector had the right to instruct mining operations to stop if she/he felt the working conditions in the mines transgressed the stipulated protocols. After issuing these instructions, the mine was requested to meet with organised labour to agree on the remedial action taken to address problems identified by Section 54 of the Act. These measures, he emphasised, had brought along significant success.

Adv. Mokoena endorsed Mr Baxter and Mr Msiza’s points. On the possibilities of employees opting not to take up the vaccine, he said existing protocols like wearing masks and social distancing were still sufficient to limit the spread of the virus. He also explained that the missing statistics identified by Mr Mahlaule were active cases. These were employees still in the early stages of infection.

Further discussion
The Chairperson commended both the MINCOSA and the DMRE for the effort they displayed in the fight against COVID-19 in the sector. Notwithstanding the positive feedback the Committee had received from the presentations, he encouraged both entities to be explicit about the situation in the industry. He said the impression that he was getting from the presentations was that everything was going well in the industry, and that this tended to cause the Portfolio Committee to relax. To avoid this, he asked both entities to share unexpected problems that could arise during this period of the pandemic. He also recommended that there be a policy framework, or consensus agreement, between social partners to provide guidelines on how to deal with the situation where some employees opted not to take the vaccine. Although taking the vaccine was voluntary, he said having some employees take the vaccine, and others not take it, was a threat in the working space that needed to be addressed.

The Chairperson asked for clarity on the statistics presented in the meeting. His concerns were specifically on the fact that of the 472 083 recorded infections, 382 905 were reported to have returned to work. This meant that 89 178 were not accounted for in the presentation. If these were part of the fatalities, or more generally, was their absence from work induced by COVID-19?

Considering past experiences, the Chairperson mentioned that the DMRE always fell short of inspectors. Given the incredible task ahead, did it have the capacity to implement the proposed protocols? If the Department intended to use its old inspectors, what new skills did it equip them with? Another point of concern was how the presentations hardly outlined the role of complementary institutions in the fight against COVID-19 in the workplace. For example, he asked what role the Mine Health and Safety Council played in the working environment during this period. It was worrying that very little was said about such institutions because it was expected that they would be at the forefront. Lastly, what other measures, apart from collaborating with Business Unity South Africa (Busa), had the MINCOSA put in place to fast track the vaccine roll-out procedure. For instance, what role did private medical cover play in the MINCOSA’s endeavour to roll-out the vaccine once it arrived?

Further responses
Mr Baxter welcomed the Chairperson’s questions and admitted that there were concerns about the future of the industry in this difficult environment. In the previous year the global value chain of diamonds shut down. Talks between the Council and the DG were therefore underway to discuss relief measures that could be implemented to cushion the industry during these difficult times. These included reducing the 5% export levy and other costs associated with the valuation of diamonds.

After the Chairperson’s enquiry about the number of employees that had returned to work, Mr Baxter said there was a mistake on the second slide of their presentation. Instead of 472 083, it was 452 083. However, he did agree that the number of people who had not returned to work was substantial, and that this was among the most important reasons why vaccines were needed. Companies played a significant role in funding employees who suffered comorbidities, were above the age of 60, and those that worked from home. He acknowledged that given the large number of individuals covered by medical aid in the industry, the proposal to assist with vaccination by these medical insurance companies was an advantage. However, it did not affect the Council’s plans to roll-out vaccines. Medical aid companies in this process were simply going to cover the expenses of the vaccination.

Despite its absence in the presentations, Dr Balfour said a lot of work had been done by the Mine Health and Safety Council. She said the COVID-19 guideline that was used in the sector was designed by the Mine Health and Safety Council. Although more could have been done by this institution, the mechanisms that enhanced its performance were unfortunately shuttered by COVID-19. Under normal circumstances, the Mine Health and Safety Council held regional forums to disseminate ideas. However, since the outbreak of the pandemic, this became impossible. Virtual meetings were adopted but they were not as efficient.

Mr Baxter said in as much as COVID-19 was a humanitarian crisis, it awarded the mining industry an opportunity to re-energise itself.

Mr Msiza said most collaborations in the sector, not limited to those related to COVID-19, were done through the Mine Health and Safety Council. It was also responsible for a lot of research and the dissemination of information through regional forums alluded to by Dr Balfour. Other entities of the DMRE worth mentioning were the Mining Occupational Health Advisory Committee (MOHAC), chaired by Dr Lindiwe Ndelu. It provided advice and collaborated closely with the Ministry of Health. There were areas that the Department identified that needed enhancement although the discussed protocols were set to be implemented with the existing capacity of inspectors. Although additional support was needed, it was important to consider that the government was going through financial strains due to the pandemic.

Adv. Mokoena said the Department was in the process of enhancing the capacity of inspectors. This was due to be finalised by the end of the current financial year. The response to the pandemic also considered that whilst there was a need to protect the people, there was also a need to safeguard their livelihoods. For that reason, a balanced approach was adopted. Strategies that were put in place to ensure this included social compacting, infrastructure and exploration strategy.

Before releasing the MINCOSA and the DMRE from the meeting, the Chairperson stressed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. He emphasised that its impact globally had a direct effect on the South African mining industry. For that reason, the DMRE together with stakeholders and other SoEs needed to find solutions as quickly as possible. However, efforts that had been put by the MINCOSA and the DMRE to salvage the sector amidst the pandemic were commendable.

Committee programme for the 1st term
The Chairperson stated that the programme had not changed from the time it was drafted in 2020 before the Parliamentary recess. There were two matters arising. The first was the postponement of the oversight visit that was scheduled for 26-30 January 2021. This was due to ongoing programmes in Parliament and other logistical challenges. Proposed dates for this oversight were 26-28 February 2021. With this proposed arrangement, there was a possibility that the Committee was not going to be able to visit the Caltex storage facility in Milnerton. However, subject to the willingness of Committee Members, it was possible to combine the oversight in Milnerton with the oversight visit in Parow for the solar water heaters. The second issue was that the programme had slotted in an update by entities on their outstanding audit outcomes.

Mr Mahlaule expressed disappointment with whoever approved or disapproved the Committee’s programmes with specific reference to oversight visits. This was the fourth time it was happening and it was confusing how other Portfolio Committees were not affected. These unexpected cancellations and postponements of oversight visits were inconvenient considering that the Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources and Energy drafted its programmes on time. For these reasons, he asked the Chairperson to relay these grievances to the person who approved or disapproved oversights.

Mr Mahlaule asked that the Chairperson write to the Auditor General concerning the outstanding audits. He suggested that the programme had to have the entity responsible to procure the technology needed to minimise carbon emission in the use of coal. Coal was clearly in South Africa’s energy mix but very little was said about who was supposed acquire the equipment necessary to use it in a clean way, and very little was known about how far South Africa was to utilise coal according to global emission standards. There was also general dissatisfaction by prospective miners in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu Natal and Limpopo about the issuing of mining rights and permits. It was necessary to zoom into these provinces to understand why there was lack of efficiency and such a big backlog.

Mr M Wolmarans (ANC) said he was sufficiently covered by Mr Mahlaule’s contributions but just needed to add on a few items. Firstly, were the new dates in the programme already approved or just proposals? If approved, it was going to be ideal to use 10 March, the day specifically for entities, to slot in Mr Mahlaule’s suggestion. Secondly, he supported Mr Mahlaule’s suggestion that the Chairperson needed to engage with the AG about the delays and the inconvenience its delays had caused the Portfolio Committee. Lastly, he asked if two days of oversight were going to be enough.

Mr Mileham completely supported Mr Mahlaule’s observations but suggested that the matters raised by him be addressed in the second term of Parliament as the current term was quite full.

The Chairperson agreed with everyone’s concerns, and specifically Mr Mileham’s suggestion to prioritise the matter about coal in the second term after recess. Already Eskom had articulated that tariff hikes in the supply of electricity were due to carbon tax which suggested that there were bodies charged with the responsibility to monitor emissions. He confirmed that the dates were proposals, and that it was not two, but three days of oversight in response to Mr Wolmarans’s enquiry. Apart from these matters, he proposed two considerations for the programme on 24 February 2021. The agenda on this day was a briefing by the DMRE on the impact of the State of the Nation Address on their activities. This included a briefing by the Department on the licensing regime both on minerals and energy. This, according to the Chairperson, could not be done on the same day, and that perhaps the Committee had to consider an alternative way of dealing with these matters sufficiently.

Mr Mahlaule was satisfied with the Chairperson’s suggestions. Since the Carbon Capture Technology matter was to be prioritised in the second term, it was advisable to invite other affected Departments/Committees such as Environmental Affairs and Forestry, and Public Enterprises.

The programme was adopted with suggested amendments.

The Chairperson summarised a letter received from the Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA) detailing their dissatisfaction with mining proceedings in their area. He recommended that the Committee sets up a meeting to discuss the grievances highlighted in the letter. The second letter concerned mining rights. The third letter was about a complaint lodged with the DMRE Witbank Office by ex-employees of, and against, Murray and Roberts Cementation. Before addressing these issues, he recommended that the letters be sent to the DMRE.

Mr Mileham seconded this decision and emphasised that feedback from the DMRE was crucial in addressing this matter.

Mr Mahlaule also agreed with the Chairperson’s decision, and added that upon sending the three letters shared in the meeting, it was important to remember that there were many other cases similar to them.

The Chairperson agreed to Mr Mahlaule’s suggestion.

The Chairperson thanked the Members for their time and asked everyone to be vigilant of COVID-19 considering that there were still new cases of infection.

The meeting was adjourned.