Health workers in Alexandra test people for Covid-19. Picture: THULANI MBELE
Health workers in Alexandra test people for Covid-19. Picture: THULANI MBELE

In the Business Beyond Covid series, CEOs and other business leaders and experts in their sectors look to the future after Covid-19. What effect has the pandemic and resulting lockdown had on their industries and the SA economy as a whole? Which parts will bounce back first and which will never be the same again? Most importantly, they try to answer the question: where to from here?

No-one could have imagined the extent to which the Covid-19 pandemic would reveal so many of our vulnerabilities as a nation — be it social, health or economic. More than three months into the storm, it is clear that the wide-ranging effects of Covid-19 are going to be with us for some time.

Our economy, further weakened by the pandemic, with the inequality in our society, means we must dare to find a bold path out of this crisis. Simply put, it is not enough for us to passively navigate our way out: we need to pave a new path that sets us up for a different reality.

The collaborative efforts by civil society, business, labour, the government and communities in responding to the pandemic have been heartening and provide a foundation for us to build on. We have long known that South Africans do know how to pull together and form a social compact when the situation demands. The risk, however, is that we may lose momentum if we are not deliberate about what we need to do beyond the crisis.

For these efforts to have lasting effect we need to commit ourselves to building real solidarity, beyond the Covid-19 crisis, and move from words to action without delay. This begins with us recognising the severity of the challenges we face as a nation.

More than a quarter[1] of SA businesses have laid off employees over the past three months due to the impact of Covid-19. SA’s official unemployment rate has increased to 30.1%. Youth unemployment in particular has been persistently high over time with young people (aged 15—34) most affected.

It is encouraging to see several reforms tabled by government to deal with these challenges, but these alone will not be enough. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach and the mining industry, as part of the broader business community, has a crucial role to play.

Mining is one of the most integrated industries in SA’s economy. Notwithstanding the many challenges the industry faces, including the pressure wrought by Covid-19, mining remains one of SA’s largest export earners, employing close to half a million people directly with an additional 4-million to 5-million people indirectly employed through the value chain. Add the number of businesses — small, medium and large — that benefit from mining procurement, or communities across the country who benefit from the immense social and infrastructure investment from mining companies — and the picture becomes clearer: mining is SA’s “champion industry”.

During this crisis mining has continued to contribute significantly to the day-to-day sustainability of many communities, playing an essential role in many regional economies across the country. As an industry, we have risen to the occasion, pooling resources and skills, and collaborating with the government and communities to respond to the social, health and economic aspects of the pandemic.

But it is clear that we have an additional responsibility, and that is to ensure that we ‒ in our circle of influence as an industry, and as business more broadly — leave no-one behind.

One of the things that has struck me during this time is the increased recognition that our most intractable challenges require real solidarity. As I’ve walked the streets of the communities that host our operations in the Northern Cape, and interacted with community, political and religious leaders, I have begun to realise that it is simply not enough for any business to simply sign a cheque, or donate PPE and health consumables. What society requires of us, as business, now more than ever, is a commitment to that real solidarity.

What do I mean by this? Given the divisions that exist in SA, both perceived and real, the overwhelming majority of our compatriots are facing uncertainty. This uncertainty permeates various aspects of people’s lives. It results in existential questions on whether they will be guaranteed job security, or whether their families and loved ones will be spared the trauma of having to deal with the pandemic at close quarters. No-one has the answers to this, we know. And the reality is that such uncertainty is going to become our new normal for some time as we pave a path out of this crisis.

As a patriot of this great nation, I am well aware of the scale of the deprivation and hardship that many of my fellow countrymen and women face. This is why real solidarity is important. It signifies a commitment, across society, for us to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers — to care for those unable to care for themselves, to lend a hand wherever we can to enable the most vulnerable in our society to make it out on the other side. This is ultimately what real solidarity is: it is about recognising the vulnerability we all share — regardless of our privilege and position in society — and committing ourselves to act in response to mitigating these.

To give practical expression to real solidarity, I believe that the mining industry, and business more broadly, should:

  • Continue its commitment to advocate for inclusive economic growth. The urgency of building a just and inclusive economy is non-negotiable for SA to recover from this crisis;
  • Find new ways of giving practical expression to the notion of solidarity. It has been very encouraging to see the number of business leaders who have come out in solidarity and donated personally to the Solidarity Fund and other causes;
  • Contributing to building thriving communities by focusing our social investment efforts on radically improving outcomes in health, education and livelihoods, including by being the catalyst for diverse and self-sustaining economic activity;
  • Continue to collaborate with local stakeholders to jointly assess and respond to the needs of the communities around our operations, particularly as we prepare for the recovery phase of our economy and society; and
  • Advocating for the modernisation of our economy, by embracing technology. Across the world, industries such as mining are on the cusp of a significant change led by the accelerating pace of technological and other forms of innovation. In mining, in particular, we have a unique opportunity — digitalisation, automation and artificial intelligence are all opening opportunities for the industry to be safer, more productive and sustainable in every sense. Embracing this change is critical for the industry in SA to continue to thrive and continue to create job opportunities for many South Africans.

The path ahead of us is uncertain, and change always causes anxiety, but one thing is clear: we have an opportunity to emerge from this crisis stronger than we were before. This depends on our ability to pull together, recognise our collective strength and ensure that no-one is left behind.

• Themba Mkhwanazi is the CEO of Kumba Iron Ore, a member of the Anglo American group.

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