Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CHRISTOPHER FURLONG
Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CHRISTOPHER FURLONG

In the modern world if there is one thing above all else that mining companies are painfully conscious of, particularly in SA, it is the public relations fallout that comes from moving families from their homes to make way for mines.

Mining companies work hard to combat an image of being rapacious, polluting and indifferently selfish in their pursuit of minerals and profits.

This image simply cannot be perpetuated in any way as the industry strives to meet the environmental, social and governance (ESG) requirements that funds, investors, governments and the broader public now expect. Any lapses by mining companies on these three legs will bring severe consequences.

Globally, all mining companies want to be seen as caring, environmentally aware and responsible, and the best thing to happen to the communities in which they operate.

Making that a reality is incredibly difficult.

In SA, mining has a particularly unpleasant history, deeply entwined with apartheid laws and practices to source cheap, expendable labour. While so many families in the country and neighbouring states have a history with mining, it is not one covered in glory.

So when a company of the stature of Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) talks about moving 1,000 households in the impoverished Limpopo province so that it can expand its fantastically profitable opencast Mogalakwena mine, eyebrows are sure to go up and hearts beat a little faster.

Amplats is an 80% held subsidiary of Anglo American. Not only Amplats but its parent, Anglo, will be at enormous pains to ensure the relocation of 1,000 families ticks all the boxes, avoids recrimination from the community of Skimming-Leruleng and any broader backlash from a public relations disaster and antsy investors.

This is one of the biggest challenges Amplats faces in its future as it moves closer to an expansion of the Mogalakwena mine in a project that could cost up to R23bn. Get it wrong and the outcome is very serious and will haunt the company for years to come.

Amplats already has the experience of angry community members from two earlier moves of 706 households in early 2000 and 957 more in a programme that started in 2005. As recently as 2015 there was violent unrest near Mogalakwena by aggrieved community members complaining Amplats was not living up to its pre-location promises.

Amplats maintained it had lived up to its commitments.

In SA now, six years on, relationships with communities have worsened as the economy has faltered and unemployment has shot up to one in three adults out of a job and unlikely to find one any time soon. Municipalities are shambolically bad and the lack of services, let alone new investments, is stoking community anger and frustrations as businesses decide to move to better-run districts.

Anyone of a certain age or interest in history will equate forced removals with the apartheid era. It was a shameful time in SA’s history and not one that should be used lightly for questionable political gain.

The chances of the Amplats relocation plans being hijacked for short-term financial or political expediency are almost certain. No doubt some will see this as their big chance to strike it rich at the expense of a broader community. Amplats plans a 30-month consultation process and to conduct itself to the highest possible international and Anglo standards as a way to ward off these chancers.

Human rights groups and NGOs will watch for the slightest misstep and scream blue murder if they see one.

It is also pouring money into communities near its mines, sourcing labour, goods and services to create a loyalty to the operations and a unspoken awareness of the financial and lifestyle consequences if these processes are interfered with by the mafias that will disrupt mining.

It’s undeniably difficult to ask 1,000 families to move from their homes, farms and lands.

Given that Amplats is generating record profits it has the money to go above and beyond in this relocation, giving poor villagers a chance to improve their lives, have top-quality medical and schooling facilities, good infrastructure, nice houses and decent gardens, properly run agriculture and livestock care.

Penny pinching and being niggardly at a time like this will backfire. Amplats and Anglo simply cannot afford that.

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