The deaths coincided with a mine safety summit organised by the department of minerals and energy, the National Union of Mineworkers and the London-based mining company, Anglo American PLC.

The initiative followed a nationwide strike over safety in December.

In 2007, almost 250 miners died throughout South Africa, which has the deepest mines in the world.

'Profits before lives'

Unions say mining companies continue to put profits before lives.

"Until such time that the industry accepts full responsibility for the training of its workers … then the problems will persist"

Frans Baleni,
leader of the  National Union
of Mineworkers

Frans Baleni, leader of the 270,000-member National Union of Mineworkers, said in a statement: "We had talks and talks, seminars, marches, workshops, conferences and summits, but the trick lies in the implementation.

"Until such time that the industry accepts full responsibility for the training of its workers ... then the problems will persist," he said.

Poor pay, dire living conditions and concerns over safety are seen as a legacy of the apartheid government which was unconcerned for black miners.

However, Cynthia Carroll, Anglo American chief executive officer, said that the company was determined to make safety the core of its operations.

"We held two summits in the past year and showed we are prepared to do what is necessary to meet this challenge head-on by shutting down mine shafts where safety performance has not been up to standards," Carroll said.

The number of fatalities has halved in the past 10 years.

Safety 'imperative'

Buyelwa Sonjica, the minerals and energy minister, told the safety conference that the government was determined to improve safety standards.

"Safety at work is a constitutional imperative that we all have to uphold,'' she said.

In October, 3,200 workers at a Harmony Gold mine were trapped for two days in a mine more than a mile underground after a pressurised air pipe exploded.

The miners escaped unscathed, but the mineworkers' union said that the company had long ignored calls for all shafts to have two exits, rather than just one.

The government subsequently ordered a safety audit, but the results have not yet been published.