MASERU – Firestone Diamonds announced on Wednesday this week that it will suspend operations at its Liqhobong Mine for at least three weeks to safeguard its workforce and the surrounding community from the COVID-19 epidemic.
Only essential care and maintenance services and security will remain operational. “The health, safety and well-being of the mine’s workforce and the surrounding community is of paramount concern to the company,” the company’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Paul Bosma said. Bosma indicated all staff at the mine may be especially vulnerable to an outbreak of the coronavirus due to the remote location of the mine and the distance from expert medical care, high altitude and close proximity to one another in buildings on the mine.
Liqhobong Mine, located in Botha-Bothe, is partly owned by the United Kingdom-based Firestone Diamonds through a 75 percent shareholding. The government owns the rest of the shares. The mining lease that Firestone Diamonds holds is reportedly valid until June 2021, with options to renew it by two additional periods of 10 years. The project primarily involves the development of an open-pit mine to a depth of 393m and construction of a main treatment plant.
The mine is considered to be the world’s third biggest underdeveloped kimberlite resource, based on the contained carats. As of September 2015, it was estimated to contain reserves of 36.04 million tonnes of ore. Bosma said the decision to suspend operations was aligned to the “March 23, directive issued by the South African requiring a 21-day national lockdown, effective from Thursday March 26, midnight to Thursday April 16,” in order to contain the spread of coronavirus.
“Lesotho is landlocked by South Africa and the mine is dependent on South Africa for a large portion of its essential mining supplies. The company will continue to closely assess developments in this regard,” he said. Lesotho is one of Africa’s significant new diamond producers, hosting Gem Diamonds’ Letšeng Mine, Firestone’s Liqhobong Mine, Namakwa Diamonds’ Kao Mine and Lucapa’s Mothae Mine.
Although there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lesotho so far, there are now more than 2 800 confirmed cases of the disease across Africa and growing warnings that the pandemic will cause major challenges for the continent’s under-resourced health services. World Health Organization (WHO) officials have said the statistics are likely to significantly underestimate the true number of cases.
There have been 60 reported deaths so far. About a third of the cases are in South Africa, which recorded a steep rise overnight. The country’s health minister, Zweli Mkhize, said on Wednesday this week the number of coronavirus cases had reached 709, up from 554 a day before. South Africa went into a strict 21-day lockdown last night in an attempt to avoid a “catastrophe of huge proportions”, said the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, on Monday.
The lockdown will confine all but essential workers to their homes, though journeys to buy groceries or seek medical attention will be allowed. All restaurants, fast-food outlets, pubs, bars and taverns will be shut and transportation of alcohol is banned. Lesotho has followed suit. On Wednesday this week, Thabane announced that Lesotho will enforce a three-week lockdown over coronavirus. In a televised address to the nation, the prime minister said the 21-day lockdown will begin at midnight Sunday.