Mining group Sibanye-Stillwater said on Friday more than 950 workers trapped at its Beatrix mine after a power outage had been successfully rescued, but the incident adds pressure on an industry accused of pursuing profits at the expense of workers’ safety, a charge it denies.

For gold producers in particular, it piles on to the woes of a sector that has been waning since the start of the 21st century, more than 100 years after the discovery of the precious metal spawned the development of South Africa’s commercial hub of Johannesburg, dubbed “the city of gold”.

For many years, South Africa was the world’s primary gold producer, with peak production of 1,000 tons in 1970. Annual output has however tumbled to below 170 tons a year and the country has fallen to seventh largest producer globally.

From the early 2000s, profitability took a hit as mines were forced to go deeper to find the rich reef gold patches, against the background of a falling global bullion price.

South Africa has some of the deepest mines in the world, with Mponeng gold mine, operated by AngloGold Ashanti, extending 4 km below ground.

A drop in production has reduced gold’s contribution to the economy. The precious metal contributed 3,8 percent to gross domestic product in 1993 but this fell to 1,7 percent in 2013, according to Statistics South Africa. Gold made up 67 percent of all mineral sales in 1980, dropping steeply to 12.5 percent in 2014.

As output comes under strain, jobs in the gold sector have also declined, with around 120,000 workers employed as of 2016 from more than 170,000 in 2007.

The sector faces an urgent need to modernise as mining depths increase and conditions become more challenging, South Africa’s chamber of mines says.

Using conventional mining, the gold industry will see a sharp decline in production by 2019-20, with reserves exhausted by 2033.

Mining companies have spent over R500 million annually over the past couple of years on innovation while the government committed R150 million in 2016.

But as the industry scrambles to stay viable, the government and unions say ensuring workers’ safety has fallen by the wayside.

A report by the department of mineral resources in 2012 said more than 54,000 mine workers had lost their lives in mining accidents in South Africa since the first recorded mining accident in 1904.

The chamber of mines insists companies have put measures in places to enhance safety, but conceded last year that industry fatalities had spiked above the 73 reported in 2016, snapping nearly a decade of consecutive steady annual declines.

– African News Agency (ANA)