In a sea of charcoal grey and navy suits at the 2019 Mining Indaba, Gwede Mantashe’s socks provided a welcome burst of red, as he took his seat on stage. Asked later about the significance of the attire, the mineral resources minister simply said: “it’s trending”. 

(Statement socks certainly are in vogue, and trendy trade unionists who have also opted for red ones have been known to make a splash on Twitter.)             

Another well-known name eager not to miss another fad was Anglo American. The mining giant gifted delegates with stainless-steel straws, so that they could enjoy liquid refreshment without the guilt of adding to the global plastic pollution problem.

Of course, statement socks and reusable straws are all part of a rapidly changing world — one in which the age-old mineral resources sector has to transform if it is to survive. If there was a theme for the first day of the Indaba, the largest mining conference in the world which kicked off in Cape Town on Monday, this was it.

The fourth industrial revolution, characterised by technologies which are changing the way we work and live, was a common refrain among industry leaders.

Many of these technologies are driving the world towards low-carbon economies and seem at odds with older, dirtier industries, like mining.  But, as Mantashe told delegates, the fourth industrial revolution is not a phrase that should cause the mining sector to run for cover.

Rather, the industry should embrace it because, after all, new technologies still rely on commodities for their components. Nickel, lithium and cobalt in particular are key metals in new, low-carbon technologies.

Ted J Miller, head of energy storage strategy and research at Ford, sees a revolution coming in the automotive sector with a significantly push toward low-emissions technologies — like electric vehicles which rely on cobalt-based lithium-ion batteries.

Yet the anomaly is that while the mining industry will still have a role to play in new technologies, the industry itself is being radically altered by new technology.

Roger Baxter, CEO of the Minerals Council SA, said the future of mining held “pretty exciting stuff” for the industry in terms of digitisation, modernisation and “mining 4.0”.

In particular, Baxter said, new technologies in certain commodities, such as deep-level gold mining, could be a game changer. For example, skills will be very different in the future. For example, says Baxter, it is no longer just geologists who explore for mineral deposits — but computer scientists and mathematicians.

But talk of transforming the mining sector requires another change which is not necessarily hi-tech, but is key to sustainability. As Mantashe put it, the industry needs to “realise that mining is not about rocks and money — it’s about people”.

Mining must ensure it is able to coexist with other sectors as well as the communities in which they mine as an “imperative for the long-term sustainability of the industry”.

For industry too, it’s clear that, increasingly, discontent in mining-affected communities can hurt the bottom line.

Cheryl Carolus, Gold Fields chair, told delegates that a parallel event — the Alternative Mining Indaba — was taking place in Cape Town at the same time, “with people who are very angry with how they think we do our business”.

This adversarial relationship with communities is bad for business, she says.

Mark Cutifani, Anglo American CEO, appears to agree and later made his way across town to speak at the alternative event. “We have to be partners with our local communities,” says Cutifani.

Baxter says government needs to step up too.

“In 2017, R53bn was returned to central government from municipalities, unspent. That has a huge impact. Mining companies are shut down by protesters because the local communities are unhappy, often it’s because local municipalities are not doing what they should be doing at the same time,” says Baxter.