PHUTHADITJHABA, South Africa, Aug 31 (Reuters) – Pakiso Matsemela recalls the day he lost the use of his legs, joining the long casualty list of a South African mining industry whose accident rate is again climbing after years of improvement.
“I heard a bang and suddenly I was hit in the back by a rock. It felt like a rush of heat,” the 63-year-old told Reuters, recounting the accident that shattered his spine at the Northam Platinum mine.
That was in May, 2009 and – while of no consolation to the paralysed Matsemela – South Africa’s mines were at the time gradually getting to grips with their appalling safety record.
With an unforgiving geology, South Africa is home to the world’s deepest mines where workers labour up to 4 km (2-1/2 miles) beneath the surface. Nevertheless, the industry had been making great safety strides, with mining deaths falling for eight straight years – until this year.
The stakes are high with the mining firms, which are major employers in an economy with a 25 percent jobless rate, under pressure from the government and investors alike to improve safety. So too are the political stakes in a country still haunted by apartheid, when critics say profits counted for more than the lives of black miners.
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