by gavin du venage, african editor

South African mines will slowly begin returning to work this weekend, as the country enters another two weeks of coronavirus lockdown. On March 26, the country shut down, including most of the mining industry, with only a few coal mines supporting electricity generation. All underground operations ceased as did most surface workings.

Mining Minister Gwede Mantashe said at a briefing about the lockdown status, that mines could extend care and maintenance, and increase personnel on site. In particular, deep level mines that were at risk of seismic activity and gas buildup, could once again become active. “These mines that need attention to manage seismic activity such as rockfalls can do the work they need to do,” Mantashe said.

The rest of the industry would ramp up to 50% of its capacity. Mines would, however, have to follow correct safety protocols such as social distancing and other measures to counter the risk of virus spread.

He noted that some coal exports through the Richards Bay Coal terminal had also continued. “We didn’t allow full exports of coal,” Mantashe said. “But we didn’t want to create an energy emergency in other countries, so we allowed demand-driven exports.”

Tailings operations that were mechanized have also continued. The original lockdown was scheduled to end on April 16 at midnight, but midway through, it was extended to the end of April. The government had opted for a phased reopening of all commercial, industrial and social activity. However, the incremental restarting of mining was unlikely to achieve full production by the beginning of May, Mantashe warned.

“It is wishful thinking that mining will be at full production by May,” he said. “My estimation it will go deep into May, before full production is achieved.”

The Minerals Council South Africa has previously warned that falling cash flow meant some mines might not reopen.