Transformation is the key to success in the mining industry

The word ‘transformation’ must become some form of a slogan in the mining industry

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The word ‘transformation’ must become some form of a slogan in the mining industry if this all-important economic sector is to operate at its optimum level and continue to strongly contribute towards South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP)
Mining contributes about 20% of the country’s GDP and accounts for an estimated 3% of its annual GDP growth. South Africa’s mineral reserves rank among the world’s most valuable and are estimated at R20.3-trillion. The country’s GDP value from mining is estimated to be the fifth largest in the world, according to the South African Chamber of Mines.

South Africa boasts the world’s largest reserves of manganese and platinum group metals. It also has the largest reserves of gold, diamonds, chromite ore and vanadium, according to the US Geological Survey.

The SA Chamber of Mines says there is considerable potential for the discovery of other world-class deposits in areas yet to be explored. The country’s mineral reserves include precious metals and minerals, energy minerals, non-ferrous metals and minerals as well as industrial minerals.

Because of SA’s mining experience and its mineral wealth, the country’s mining companies are key players on the global stage. Its strengths include a high level of technical and production expertise, as well as comprehensive research and development activities.

For SA to maintain its global position or move higher on the global rankings, transformation across the entire mining spectrum is essential. There has to be a transformation in the field of technology, safety measures, environmental practices, labour practices, ownership patterns and the beneficiation of metals and minerals.

With regards to the ownership of mines, transformation is still way below the desired levels, with about 90% of the country’s mineral output still in the hands of about 10 multinational companies. The dominant mining company in SA is Anglo American, which is one of the largest mining companies in the world and has major assets in copper, coal, iron ore, nickel and diamonds. The other large companies are Rio Tinto, Vale, BHP Billiton, Barrick Gold, Freeport-McMoran, Newmont Mining Corporation, Teck, Gold Corp and Alcoa.

The sector remains largely untransformed in SA, with only a few blacks having made significant inroads in the sector, notably Patrice Motsepe, who is among SA’s richest individuals. The ANC government will have to up its act in terms of helping to elevate black-owned companies in this sector since it is capital intensive. Most black companies fail to make headway because of the lack of finance.

This has led to calls for the nationalisation of mines by Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Front (EFF) and by some within the ANC, but the ANC as an organisation does not seem keen on nationalisation, as careless moves could result in the collapse of this important sector.

A lot also still needs to be done to transform safety measures underground as miners continue to die under circumstances which, trade unions deem avoidable “if only mine owners were willing to invest more towards safety measures”. Joseph Mathunjwa, the President of the Association of Mining and Construction Unions (AMCU) has been scathing in his attacks when it comes to the deaths of miners underground, labelling mine owners greedy and uncaring. He says if mine owners could invest more in safety measures, many lives could be saved.

He says mines should invest more money in equipment to detect tremors and, where necessary, evacuate miners before disaster strikes. He blames the love of super profits as the major stumbling block to ensuring effective safety measures are put in place.

He has relentlessly called on the government to legislate for better safety measures and his union was formed as an alternative to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which some workers felt was not doing enough in fighting for transformation in the mining industry. To its credit, AMCU was able to fight for a better minimum wage in the mining sector.

According to Advocate Paul Mardon, Solidarity’s Deputy General Secretary for Occupational Health and Safety, there is a particular concern about seismic activities in deep-level mines in South Africa that cause falls of ground, leading to mining fatalities and injuries. His remarks come after 13 miners were trapped underground on 3 May 2019, after a landslide caused by seismic activity.

Adv. Mardon says the incident, which was still under investigation, could have been preceded by seismic activity and also followed by further seismic activity. Of the 13 workers, the search and rescue team managed to rescue six miners, while seven, unfortunately, lost their lives.

Solidarity also expressed concern about the lack of regular high-level talks between the various stakeholders in the mining industry to promote health and safety. Solidarity reminds employees of their legal right to withdraw from unsafe working conditions, and urges them to do so should it become necessary. Employers are also urged to respect the exercising of this right as enshrined under the country’s labour laws.

Solidarity once again calls on employers to transform mining conditions to prevent mining fatalities and urges all players at all levels in mining to accept full responsibility for themselves and for each other in a mature spirit of collaboration and interdependence.

Serious transformation is also required with regards to how mining impacts the environment. Mining has the potential to cause severe adverse effects on the environment, including the loss of biodiversity, erosion and the contamination of surface water, groundwater and soil. Mining may also affect the surrounding population’s health as a result of contamination caused by the leakage of chemicals.

Mining requires soil to be removed and when that happens, vegetation is also removed, eventually exposing the soil to weather elements, causing the particles to become airborne through road traffic and wind erosion. The unrefined particles can be composed of toxic materials such as lead, cadmium and arsenic. Such particles can adversely affect the health of humans, thus contributing to illnesses related to the respiratory systems, such as emphysema. The particles can also be absorbed through the skin or ingested.

There is a need for mining companies to redouble their efforts in finding innovative ways of transforming the current mining methods so as to have the minimum possible impact on the environment. They must avoid shortcuts or circumventing certain necessary processes as a way of maximising profits.

The SA Chamber of Mines says that through the implementation of more stringent regulations, South Africa’s mining industry has become safer as well as more socially and environmentally conscious, compared to most countries in the world. The law requires companies to establish environmental trust funds and to rehabilitate disturbed land.

Finally, the beneficiation of both minerals and metals is a most welcome development as it adds value to the country’s resources and, at the same time, creates more jobs. However, beneficiation is accompanied by processes, which bring about further pollution. The refining and smelting of minerals result in the emission of smoke and, at times, even toxic gases, which need to be carefully handled. Failure to carefully manage beneficiation processes will adversely affect the health of people around the beneficiation plants.

Therefore, there is a need to constantly review current methods to ensure they are transformed enough to guard against damaging not only people’s health, but also the ozone layer, which ultimately results in adverse climate change.

Taking transformation seriously in every sector of the mining industry would certainly go a long way towards bringing about much-needed improvements not only in terms of health, but the environment in general. 

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