I recently had the pleasure of attending the World Economic Forum’s discussion group on Responsible Mineral Development Initiative in Africa, held in Cape Town. A variety of participants from all over the world, including Ministers from Ghana, Gabon and Mozambique and many well-informed individuals, discussed several key issues at length. It was evident that sustainable development in Africa is a concern on which all mining companies in Africa need to act.

Following the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, the Department of Minerals and Energy initiated a programme to develop a strategic framework for sustainable development with the vision that, ‘by 2010, the South African minerals and petroleum sector is able to contribute to sustainable development’.

The Mining Charter and the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) was introduced in 2002 to implement the ideology referred to above.

The MPRDA policies require that mining companies should achieve a 40% historically disadvantaged South African participation in management positions and a 10% participation by women in mining within a five-year period.

In terms of community improvement, the Act requires mines to support projects that improve infrastructure and reduce poverty in the area in which the mines operate. The development of a community’s capacity is a crucial component of establishing a sustainable community and hence is a requirement for mining licence renewal. The mine is required to prepare a comprehensive integrated development and implementation plan for the community within which it will be operating.

In 2010 a revised version of the Charter was published as the pace of progress for meeting the objectives of 2002 was not progressing fast enough.

The main aim of the Charter will be to assist mines and communities to develop a sustainable environment where both those mining the land and those living on the land will prosper from the activities.

The question is then raised: what about organisations not indigenous to Africa, which enter African countries and mine the land, but do not make any effort, or an adequate effort, to take into account the effects of their activities on the communities in which they are operating.

There is a large and ever growing presence of both Western and Eastern mining companies in Africa, and with this presence comes cultures different from that of Africa. For example, the Chinese culture embodies great discipline with great reservations about or resistance to personal and community involvement and a lack of communication outside their society. How then do they function within, say, the Zambian mining environment where it is an acceptable norm to function on belated ‘African time’ within a community who believes in the spirit of Ubuntu?

An integration of the two cultures may be possible, with a resultant sustainable relationship that adapts positively to the new environment. This may be conceivable within the mine working environment but is unlikely to be carried through into the non-business, after-hours community environment. An alternative solution of assimilation, whereby groups or individuals forego the maintenance of their traditional cultures and take on those of the host society, would not seem a likely choice when considering the two vastly different cultures of Eastern and African origin.

The key to achieving any resolution between two very different and potentially clashing cultures is communication. Effective communication with the affected communities has to be achieved right from the very inception of the mine planning phase. Information must be not only abundant, but also accessible to all within the community.

This, however, leads back to the question: what about organisations that come from other continents? What compels them to create a sustainable community in the environment within which they are operating?

The Mineral Economics Committee of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy has been tasked with setting up a watching brief on the matters discussed above. The changing nature of mining in Southern Africa requires the experience and input of its membership and existing literature, such as research reports from mining analysts, primary research into the new players, and empirical mineral economics in order to enable key stakeholders in the African domain to more competently understand the supply-demand dynamics as well as cultural differences between Africa, Asia and the West. A deep understanding is required of the implications for Southern African mining and mining companies within the framework of the MPRDA.

The July issue of the SAIMM Journal will include several papers discussing sustainable development and the role of the Mineral Economics Committee.