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South Africa orders mines to close in 21-day virus lockdown

Johannesburg

SOUTH Africa will close its mines for 21 days as part of a nationwide lockdown announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in a race to contain the coronavirus.

The move underscores the severity of the developing health crisis in a nation whose economy was built on gold mining. While that industry has declined, South Africa accounts for 75 per cent of the world's platinum and 38 per cent of palladium supply, and also produces minerals from bullion and manganese to chrome and iron ore.

"This would be unprecedented in the history of mining in South Africa," said Roger Baxter, the chief executive officer, of the Minerals Council South Africa, the main industry group. "There were certain times when components of the industry were closed, for example during the second world war, but this is unprecedented."

South Africa's army will help the police to enforce the lockdown, which starts from midnight on Thursday, Mr Ramaphosa said in a televised address. Grocers, pharmacies, banks and filling stations will be allowed to remain open, while the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and other essential services can continue operating. Palladium and platinum prices extended gains on Tuesday amid a broader rise in the precious metals basket.

"Companies whose operations require continuous processes such as furnaces, underground mine operations will be required to make arrangements for care and maintenance to avoid damage to their continuous operations," Mr Ramaphosa said.

Harmony Gold Mining Co, the nation's largest bullion producer by volume, said the order would "impact negatively" on its output target of 1.4 million ounces of gold and on 2020 earnings.

Sibanye Stillwater Ltd, the world's top platinum producer, is weighing the president's directive, said spokesman James Wellsted. Spokespeople for Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd and Anglo American Platinum Ltd couldn't immediately comment. BLOOMBERG