Mining, Revamped

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Remediating mining means companies value more than just profit and focus on social capital towards the collective common good.

Now and again, one must briefly look back in order to move forward. We do this to remind ourselves where we’ve been, what we’ve overcome and how we arrive at the present. More than any other, the mining industry founded, shaped and continues to define the character of the South African economy.

Take mine hosting communities for instance: the people, livestock, environment and land are completely altered from their encounter with mining activities. Often, these interactions have had both negative and positive effects on communities, families and individuals.

In short, to talk about mining in contemporary South Africa is to always acknowledge its history of appropriation of land, extraction of cheap labour from black workers and erasing black people’s connection to ancestral land.

Ignoring this uncomfortable part is to continue silencing those on the periphery of the mining economy.

Looking Back To Adress The Future 

Establishing background knowledge of society’s development is important in how it provides the essential framework for understanding why mining remains highly contested and at the heart of social struggles that emerged and are rooted in rural communities.

In the context of South African history, looking at the past is necessary if mining aims to address the scarring effects of its foundation in order to build anew its image and avoid repeating history.

It is encouraging that 26 years into democratic South Africa key stakeholders continue to work together to create shared bene ts for communities, shareholders and workers.

Consider that in 2018, mining contributed R356 billion or eight percent, illustrating the significance of the sector to the country’s economy, including a fixed investment contribution of 15% of total private sector. Furthermore, mining remains the single biggest contributor (30%) to the country’s exports.

First, exposure to external factors leaves mining vulnerable to disruptions. For example, price volatility of metals like gold and platinum, currency volatility, risk-averse investors and transition to clean energy can often result in companies restructuring their operations.

Second, perception about the government’s inability to create a stable regulatory framework has eroded any competitive advantage and desirability South Africa had in attracting investment. Moreover, electricity disruption and labour disputes constrain and interrupt production.

Taken together, domestic and global factors have had a mostly negative effect on mining, and where the sector should be thriving, it has stagnated and/or declined. Today, many South Africans are still excluded from the benefit of any economic activities produced from mining.

Relationship Building

It’s crucial that mining companies build and maintain good relationships with hosting communities where mines are located. One way of achieving this is to hire people from these communities before looking to labour sending provinces.

This could curb the hostilities often seen during protests about companies overlooking local people in favour of outside workers.

Already, employment in the mining sector has declined from over 518 000 in 2008 to 456 000 in 2018. Domestic and global factors are often the main contributors of these main challenges.

In the relative short term, by that I mean five years, these precarious conditions will worsen, as companies embrace new and rapidly advancing technological innovations due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is expected that human workers will be replaced with autonomous vehicles, robotics and self-operating machines.

Some companies have already adopted this technology. This, against the cyclical nature of mining and a globalised economy that’s continually redefining work including the working hours, types of jobs and making obsolete the need for human workers.

Mining like manufacturing is a sector that is heavily impacted by these changes. Unless organised labour and companies work together in upskilling their members and employees, workers will be the biggest losers.

Crucially, people are central to mining, therefore an outlook that is focused on profits for the companies, shareholders and investors is not sustainable.

A change in perspective is necessary, one that is informed by understanding the outcome between its interaction with people in their communities and environment.

Culture, trust, collaboration, reputation and sharing are some great self-organisation mechanisms humans have developed over time in their communities.

These principles have produced socially interactive systems with more benefits than disadvantages and have helped communities thrive even after enduring difficult times. Mining companies must connect with communities beyond simply extracting resources.

Building A New Future 

One way the mining sector can build a new future is to tap into the social capital that has enabled South Africa to rebuild, without descending into conflict or war by availing the tools (resources) to everyone.

In particular, the youth and black women, because of all population groups they are the most vulnerable to poverty and unemployment.

Removing barriers that hinder economic participation will require companies that comprehend the societal interest that cannot be ticked as part of corporate social responsibility programmes.

Yes, mining companies, like any other private sector business, are profit-driven and they must continue to be. Fostering relations with communities based on trust and open dialogue can lead to a healthy business environment.

For South Africa, mining can revamp itself and create a future legacy by becoming a sector that creates and produces benefits that reduce income inequality, create jobs and help alleviate poverty, while ensuring business sustainability – a social contract so to speak, one that’s founded on a common good for all.

Words by Mamokgethi Molopyane

Mamokgethi Molopyane is a labour and mining analyst, researcher and media, commentator.

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