MMP & trade unions sign historic agreement to collaborate on methods for modernising SA mining industry

MMP & trade unions sign historic agreement to collaborate on methods for modernising SA mining industry

by Ina King (Potgieter) September 30, 2021

At last, South Africa is moving forward on the mining modernisation front, which has previously been contested by various parties. The contestation, it seems, was due to misunderstanding the potential benefits that modernised mining will have for the country and its mining labour force. However, this seems to be behind us as last month (October 2021), in a historic development, representatives of the Mandela Mining Precinct (MMP)* and 5 labour unions signed an agreement on the terms of references that will see them collaborate on methods for modernising the South African mining industry.

Both the MMP and the Minerals Council South Africa consider participation and input from organised labour as critical to the success of mining modernisation in the future. This collaboration saw the formation of the MMP – Organised Labour Consultative (OLC) Forum (MMP – OLC), which is designed to facilitate stakeholder participation in the R&D planning needed for a modernised mining sector at a strategic and policy level.

The MMP – OCL Forum aims to meet with MMP management regularly to discuss current research, project deliverables, and future projects. According to the Minerals Council’s Modernisation & Safety Senior Executive, Sietse van der Woude, “it is the first time that organised labour will actively participate in research, development & innovation (RDI) initiatives in South Africa as a critical stakeholder in the modernisation journey.” The 5 unions participating in the agreement are the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, the National Union of Mineworkers, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, Solidarity, and UASA.

A people-centred process

The General Secretary of Solidarity, Gideon du Plessis, says the trade union agrees that the modernisation of mines should be a people-centred process where machinery carries out the work in areas where employees’ health and safety are endangered. He adds that, in addition to a safer work environment, Solidarity believes that modernisation can create opportunities for skilled workers to earn better pay.

With the pros of mining modernisation outweighing any perceived cons, South Africa is on the brink of stepping into a new mining era, one that presents many advantages. These include increased life of mine; a labour force with more skills; ore extraction from previously unreachable shafts; increased employment; and improved community conditions.

There has previously been speculation about the type of effects modernising our mines may have on the industry – some of it positive and some negative. The negative sentiment stems, it seems, from a misguided perception of what mine modernisation really is.

Modernisation is not just about innovation, new technologies, mechanisation, and automated processes, and it is not about replacing people with machines.

Technological innovation will drive modernisation

The Minerals Council South Africa, through its Mechanised Mining Systems Programme run by the MMP, aims to develop fully mechanised mining systems that allow for remotely operated extraction of narrow hard rock ore deposits, and which include non-explosive rock breaking. What is needed for complete modernisation though, is an integrated suite of locally manufactured products with real-time monitoring and control, which is the norm in many manufacturing sectors using Industry 4.0 technology.

This type of modernisation significantly extends the life of mine, preserves mining employment, improves health & safety, and allows for lower-grade orebodies and deeper resources to be mined. These benefits mean that an environment conducive to 24/7 operations until 2045 or beyond in the gold sector is achievable and will bring higher skills utilisation and job preservation with it. The Mineral Council’s research shows that a low-grade mine with a current life expectancy of about 4 years could extend operations to 15 years just by using semi-mechanised mining methods. With full mechanisation and 24/ operations, these mines could extend operations by up to 25 years.

For mine modernisation to be successful, it must be addressed in an integrated manner, adopting both a systems- and people-centric approach. All elements of mining – including reporting structures, skills development, change management, stakeholder engagement, community development and environmental management – need to be modernised.

What are your thoughts on mining modernisation? Let us know.

*The MMP, a Public-Private Partnership between the Department of Science and Innovation and the Minerals Council South Africa, is an initiative aimed at revitalising mining research, development & innovation (RDI) in South Africa to ensure the industry’s sustainability. The P-PP initiative is implemented through 6 research-based programmes, all of which are aimed at improving the safety of mines and introducing innovative technologies to the industry.

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