South Africa will allow mines to operate at 50% capacity during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, according to amended government regulations published on Thursday.
The government had ordered most underground mines and furnaces to be put on care and maintenance during the lockdown, which started on March 27 and has been extended until the end of April, 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 disease caused by the new 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 has affected global commodities markets since several local miners have cut their production plans or declared force majeure.
Mines minister Gwede Mantashe told a news conference that the government knew there were risks 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 kilometres deep.
The amended regulations say mines will be allowed to restart and ramp up capacity depending on conditions including the screening of employees for COVID-19 symptoms, the availability of quarantine facilities and transport arrangements for workers.
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 2,506 people infected with the coronavirus and 34 deaths.