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No, South Africa does not account for ‘50% of global mining deaths’

Calling for executive accountability, a social media user made claims about the mining industry’s death toll. The claim is misleading, but data on the topic is sorely lacking.

This article is more than 2 years old

  • Messages posted on Twitter and Facebook claim that 50% of global mining deaths occur in South Africa.

  • But the figure is taken from a 2020 report by the International Council on Mining and Metals, which only records the deaths reported by its 28 member companies. This is not all the mining deaths in the world.

  • There is a lack of reliable global statistics on mining fatalities. Deaths from mining diseases, and the deaths of contractors and small-scale miners, tend to be under-reported.

“About 50% of global mining deaths occur in South Africa. Yet no single mining executive has been held accountable,” reads a tweet with more than 850 likes, which has been shared over 500 times on Twitter. 

The claim has also been posted on Facebook and other social media.

When another user asked for “receipts” supporting the claim, the person who posted it said the data came from the International Council on Mining and Metals. 

Is the claim backed by data? We checked. 

Only 28 members included in ranking

The source of this claim is a 2020 report published by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM). The mining association collates the number of workplace accidents and fatalities recorded by its members.

But the ICMM told Africa Check that its 28 member companies represent only about a third of the global mining industry. Not all mining companies are members and not all countries are represented. 

According to the report, South Africa recorded 22 out of 44 fatalities in 2020. This is 50% of deaths reported by its members – not 50% of global deaths. 

South Africa also accounted for more total working hours than any other individual country: 17.7% of all recorded hours in 2020.

Government records more mining deaths

South Africa has regularly fared worst in the ICMM’s safety reports. It has contributed the most deaths every year since 2015, the first year the council recorded location data. The one exception was 2019, when the Brumadinho dam disaster in Brazil claimed more than 250 lives.

But the ICMM’s records likely don’t even represent all mining deaths in South Africa. 

The last year the country’s department of mineral resources and energy released a tally of mining fatalities was 2018. In that year, the department recorded 81 fatalities, while South African ICMM members recorded just 14.

Data on global mining deaths is limited 

According to the Minerals Council South Africa (MCSA), another mining industry employers’ organisation, the ICMM’s 28 members “exclude huge numbers of mining businesses in many parts of the world, including some major mining jurisdictions, most notably China”.

But determining the total number of mining fatalities around the world is not easy.

“There is no one record of all industry fatalities,” the ICMM told Africa Check. “Individual companies will release their fatality numbers in their own sustainability and annual reports.”

In 2019 the Wall Street Journal reported that many of the world’s mining fatalities may not even be counted. Its analysis of mining companies’ safety reports found that many did not record the deaths of contractors, workers transporting extracted minerals or deaths at joint mining ventures, which are managed by more than one company.

The journal even found that more than half of the people who died in the 2019 Brumadinho dam disaster may not have been included in the official mining death toll. 

Deaths from mining diseases are even more likely to go unrecorded.

Artisanal mining deaths may not be recorded

Another category of fatalities which may go overlooked is artisanal mining. In 2013, the World Bank estimated that there were “approximately 100 million artisanal miners globally”. 

This form of small-scale mining is often, but not always, conducted illegally. Deaths in this sector are more likely to go unrecorded. 

In June 2021 the bodies of 20 people believed to be illegal miners or “zama-zamas” were found near abandoned mine shafts in Johannesburg. In a 2016 report, human rights organisation Amnesty International said that in artisanal cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “many accidents go unrecorded and bodies are left buried in the rubble”.

And a 2004 publication by philanthropy organisation Oxfam, in collaboration with environmental non-profit Earthworks, found that “health and safety data for ASM [artisanal and small-scale mining] are sketchy, but the sector appears to experience a significantly higher accident rate than the industry as a whole”.

Conclusion: South Africa accounts for 50% of mining deaths recorded by 28 companies in a single report – not 50% of global deaths. 

A widely shared social media post claims that South Africa accounted for “about 50% of global mining deaths”. But the report cited as evidence gives mining fatalities for 28 companies in 2020. That year South Africa accounted for half of the 44 recorded fatalities. 

The report likely doesn't even represent all mining deaths in South Africa. It also excludes major miners and mining countries such as China. We therefore rate the claim misleading. 

But data on global mining fatalities is fraught with problems. Beyond the lack of reliable global statistics, deaths from disease, and the deaths of contractors and small-scale miners, are regularly under-reported across the world. 

More and better data is needed to accurately determine how many deaths are due to mining, both globally and in South Africa.

NOTE: We have corrected this report to reflect that the full name of the ICMM is the International Council on Mining and Metals. An earlier version of the report incorrectly referred to it as the International Council on Mining and Minerals.

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