Picture: BLOOMBERG
Picture: BLOOMBERG

It has become standard for the mining industry — and business more broadly — to make a case for urgent reforms for SA’s present and future. Sometimes it feels like we’re repeating the same script, anxiously waiting for the change we desperately need. But there is something about this moment that is different. We are at a crossroads. We can continue on our current unsustainable path or we can seize the moment to turn the corner.

When it comes to SA, and its mining industry more particularly, I am ever the optimist. I am aware that there is much chatter about whether the past 10 are SA’s “wasted years”, but while the decade has been less than ideal, we need to set our eyes firmly on the future. I believe we are at the beginning of a decade of promise for SA and its mining industry. We have a unique opportunity to build a modern, inclusive and equitable economy, in which mining will play a major role. But we cannot stand back and debate the obvious or postpone the actions we need to take any longer. Together, we really can “build back better”.

There is no doubt we have some encouraging green shoots that can serve as a catalyst for the next decade. Looking at SA’s mining industry specifically, there are four promising developments.

  1. In February the finance minister announced measures to facilitate cross-border financial transactions to provide multinational companies in SA with increased flexibility to manage cash resources optimally. This development levels the playing field with other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations and is a significant further positive step towards building SA’s attractiveness as a globally competitive investment destination.

  2. Just two months ago, mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe withdrew the government’s appeal on “the continuing consequences of previous empowerment transactions” under the new Mining Charter. This is a major development and one that should fill us with optimism as a country. While there is still a lot that can be done to bring more regulatory certainty, this move paves the way to legal certainty over the current Mining Charter, which further strengthens our collective commitment to transformation.

  3. Over the past year, Eskom and Transnet, the two most critical state-owned enterprises that are vital for our success as an industry, have undergone significant changes under new and committed leadership. Restoring our crucial infrastructure in the form of reliable energy supply and adequate rail and port facilities will take time, but the building blocks are being laid.

  4. Since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis the co-operation and work between government and business has been unprecedented. The government has been decisive, businesses and unions have stood up together and supported communities, and the collective will of people with good hearts and intentions have delivered practical working solutions that have exceeded the efforts of many developed nations.

These green shoots alone will not be sufficient to place SA’s mining industry among the top mining and investment jurisdictions in the world. What we need is urgent action — from the government, labour, communities and the industry — to partner in building a modern, inclusive and equitable mining industry that will create enduring value for all South Africans.

Graphic: KAREN MOOLMAN
Graphic: KAREN MOOLMAN

Changing technology

Everywhere around us, industries such as mining are on the cusp of significant change. Technology is fundamentally changing how we operate and must progress in tandem with the need for sustainable business models that create value for all stakeholders. Changing how we operate is more than just technology. It’s about how we embed innovation and sustainable practices across our value chain.

With technologies already available and others we are developing, we can now imagine mines with smaller physical footprints, using more precise extraction techniques that enable us to mine only the most valuable ore. This will help remove people from harm’s way, reduce waste, use a fraction of the energy we use today, and draw almost no fresh water. A modern mining industry is vital for a mineral-rich country such as SA. These shifts are well underway across the global industry, opening up employment opportunities to a far greater diversity of people.

There are countless examples of how this is already being done throughout our industry — such as the introduction of remotely operated machinery. At Anglo American, we have a range of exciting projects, such as our current trial of bulk-ore sorting at Mogalakwena, which leverages new sensor technology in real-time to process a greater proportion of ore, and less waste rock.

Embracing these opportunities is critical for the industry in SA to continue to thrive and create job opportunities for many South Africans. If we do not accelerate the modernisation of our industry — so that it embraces new technologies and skills — we will not have a competitive mining industry 10 years from now.

Mining women

Similarly, if we do not work hard to build a truly inclusive mining industry we will not survive, let alone thrive. It is hard to imagine that there was a time when women were explicitly prohibited from working in the mining industry by law. We have come a long way since then, but we are nowhere near where we need to be.

What has become clear to me and many of my colleagues is that this issue does not end with the lack of adequate representation. There are systemic issues at play that discourage many of our female colleagues from entering or staying in the mining industry, such as the scourge of gender-based violence and corrosive gender biases. Various initiatives are in train to help address these perspectives, and these are spurring all of us to look in the mirror and commit ourselves to urgent change.

Anglo American is stepping up its efforts to walk the talk when it comes to gender equality. Some of the technologies we are adopting are enabling greater participation by women in mining roles traditionally dominated by men.

Take “old school” exploration drilling, for example, which typically involves a lot of manual labour. Through new technology and automation we have been able to automate the handling of the drill rods with the drills themselves, operated in an air-conditioned cabin, making the job a lot safer and more efficient for everyone. One of our exploration drilling teams at our Kumba Iron Ore business is made up solely of women, making this the first-ever all-women drilling team on the continent.

Community engagement

At the same time, our host communities — which are central to our long-term success as a business — are rightfully asking us hard questions about how we engage with them. There’s a new paradigm of community engagement that is unfolding in front of our eyes.

Our host communities frequently tell us that they want to be heard; that they want to determine their destinies. This is a crucial shift — one that places the aspirations and agenda of the communities at the heart of everything we do. It is only by building an equal path, on which we can walk side-by-side with our communities, that we can navigate the increasingly complex dynamics that exist in our host communities.

In some ways this pandemic has allowed us to press the great “reset” button. We can play a leading role in shaping the next 10 years by building a modern mining industry that embraces innovation and sustainability, while making the industry more inclusive, and developing equitable relationships with our host communities.

SA’s mining industry is changing for the better. Let us continue on this path of change and progress. Let us all help SA build back better.

• Cutifani is Anglo American CEO. This is an extract from his address at the opening of the 2020 Joburg Indaba.

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