The alchemists of past centuries tried hard to make the elixir of life: ...Those efforts were in vain; it is not in our power to obtain the experiences and the views of the future by prolonging our lives forward in this direction. However, it is well possible in a certain sense to prolong our lives backwards by acquiring the experiences of those who existed before us and by learning to know their views as well as if we were their contemporaries. The means for doing this is also an elixir of life. Hermann Franz Moritz Kopp.
The papers in this issue are a selection of the best presentations at a colloquium of undergraduate student projects held between the mining and metallurgical orientated faculties in Pretoria and Johannesburg, together with students from the Tshwane and Vaal Universities of Technology.
They are not intended to be the latest forefront research, but nevertheless are worth reading. The SAIMM strongly promotes this association with the staff and students at the universities for the obvious reason that the undergraduates are future members of the professional institutes and future contributors to our publications.
In spite of the importance of the gold mining industry in the last century, mining and metallurgy were the smallest of the engineering faculties in South Africa. In the last few decades of the last century, mining as a professional career option, declined across the world, particularly in the Englishspeaking western countries. In the USA, the famous Bureau of Mines stations, which led the world in technology development, were closed down. Famous schools of mining such as the Colorado School of Mines and Imperial College, London, were directed to materials sciences, and many research laboratories such as Warren Springs Laboratories were closed or converted to commercial service organizations such as the Australian Minerals Development Laboratories (AMDEL). The total employment of graduates decreased steadily at a time when the decline in the mighty gold mining industry in South Africa took place.
The Chamber of Mines Research Organization (COMRO) and many of the group research organizations such as the Corner House Laboratories were closed down. The Department of Metallurgy at Wits was joined with the Department of Chemical Engineering to become the Department of Process and Materials Engineering. The research was continued by statutory organizations such as Mintek and the CSIR but for a variety of reasons related to the publish or perish syndrome, researchers preferred to publish in overseas journals to gain a higher citation index. The SAIMM Journal struggled to obtain more than a sprinkling of original research papers. Mining was the Cinderella of career options.
Suddenly there has been a turn around. Cinderella has moved to centre stage. In the last few years there has been a dramatic transformation. This is described by Professor John Cruise in a paper on ‘The Gender and Racial Transformation of Mining Engineering in South Africa’. This paper describes an almost unbelievable transformation in the enrolment of students in mining engineering and, most surprisingly, in the numbers of female students choosing mining engineering as a career. There are many profound implications, which are well explained in the paper on registration of professional engineers and the increased numbers of new graduates emerging from the departments of Mining Engineering at the Witwatersrand and Pretoria universities. These two departments are producing more graduates than the rest of the English-speaking world, including Australia, Canada, the United States, and the UK.
This quantum leap in numbers probably represents the ‘elixir of life’ for the mining engineering faculties and indeed the vocational professional bodies representing graduates in this profession. There has also been a significant increase in diplomats in mining from the University of Johannesburg, and this degree can be converted to a university equivalent qualification by postgraduate study.
As explained in Cruise’s paper, the path to the top of mine management positions in a mining career is the same process of government certification for diplomats and graduates.
There is every indication that the new popularity is sustainable, and the exciting and inspiring situation is cause for congratulation to the staff and students of the universities. The Institute must make sure that the new graduates are made to feel welcome and proud to belong to a fraternity respected across the world. The most enlightening aspect of this achievement is the fact that the majority of successful graduates come from disadvantaged backgrounds where it was generally supposed that the school level teaching in maths and science was below par for success in attempting an engineering degree. That so many have succeeded in a course which is up to the highest academic standards, is a highly praiseworthy achievement. We, in South Africa, need many times this number of graduates in other branches of engineering and applied sciences, and the lessons learned instil confidence for more ambitious plans.
For example is it possible to establish at these two Universities research schools which would achieve an international status and attract research leaders and post graduates from other countries and financial support for mining projects of global interest and value?.
South Africa has much to offer. There exists a mining culture with many opportunities for research projects. The mining school would be supported by some of the best engineering and applied scientific faculties in Africa. It would represent a gateway to the mineral resources of Southern Africa, and technology transfer and interaction could take place easily.
The opportunity for integrated teams to solve the many common mining problems such as acid mine drainage, slimes dams’ detoxification, the establishment of sustainable mining clusters around mining areas, and environmental reconstitution are such examples. Not to mention the first prize of ultra deep mining technology. The collaboration and support of the SAIMM in setting up international seminars to define the interest and scope of such an undertaking would be invaluable.
One could easily conceive of a portfolio of challenging projects to justify international financing. The common theme in all such suggestions must be the creation of work opportunities for ourselves and for the rest of Africa.
If we can produce the engineers, whether in mining or other disciplines, we are moving in the right direction. Many of us believed that we would have to wait several generations for school improvement. It would seem that this success story from the Pretoria and Witwatersrand universities has shown the way to move more rapidly. And we must expand on this example with all speed.
But we will need much help from international organizations and a concept of this character could represent an important South African contribution to the new alliance with BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China).
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