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‘Nothing is there to come, and nothing is past, but an eternal NOW, will always last’ Abraham Cowlie

‘Sustainability’ is a word used frequently in the Mining Charter, the ‘Magna Carta’ negotiated between the mining industry and the newly elected government after the modern ‘reformation’ in the third millennium of South Africa’s history. There is a reasonably close parallel between the rights granted by King John to the Barons, the clergy and freemen of England and the privileges and responsibilities negotiated with the mighty mining industry. Although not of the same status as the Bible or the Constitution, the Mining Charter is an important document which must be respected by all involved in mineral exploitation in this country. Regular Report Cards are obligatory.

The problem is that words are used which can be interpreted in different ways. The dictionary definition of sustainability is to achieve a perpetual state of operability. The word came into popular use after the environmental sustainability conference held in Johannesburg some years ago and is taken to refer to the avoidance of poverty and deterioration to the environment. In the Mining Charter, the word refers not only to the environmental aspects of mining, but also to the empowerment of previously disadvantaged shareholders and mineworkers and the improvement of their skills and promotion opportunities. Reference is also made to retrenchment or discharge on mine closure. All of these perceptions of the meaning of the word are very desirable but a mine cannot continue forever because orebodies are of finite size and must eventually become unworkable.

There is a clear perception that when the final closure comes the mine has a responsibility to provide sustainability to the community previously established as being dependent on the mine. Thus De Beers, for example, is promoting a variety of activities at Cullinan to preserve a measure of economic activity after the inevitable closure of the diamond mining operations. But what is the nature of the obligation: how much and for how long do provisions have to be made? What are the role of the government and the other recipients of the royalties? Do they also have a responsibility? These are vexing questions and common sense may not always prevail. God forbid that we leave the questions of sustainability in the hands of the legal profession. Let us try and keep directions in the hands of the mining community and follow the culture that has evolved in Southern Africa over the last century and bring this in line with the profound changes in the last decade.

I am quite sure that a hundred years ago when Johannesburg was a small mining camp, there was little talk of future ‘sustainability’. Now a century later it seems obvious that a huge measure of sustainability has been achieved. Gauteng, the ultimate evolution of the gold mining activities from Springs to Randfontein, is the hub of economic and technological activity in Southern Africa, in spite of the fact that almost all of the gold mines that were the mainstay of this evolution are now defunct. The Witwatersrand was a golden goose that allowed lavish expenditure on provision of houses and luxurious recreational facilities for its (white) workers.

A huge infrastructure could be built up to provide the engineering and technical expertise necessary to maintain prolifically profitable operations. An infrastructure of industries such as steelworks and electrical power stations was established, supported by educational colleges, universities, and business schools catalyzed by expertise and a host of equipment suppliers from overseas. For most of the last century the gold mining industry was such a large part of the economy that it was not surprising that when this industry declined, it left a legacy that was self-sustaining (even though the palatial buildings of the mighty mining companies are standing partially empty). Sustainability comes naturally one might say. If one provides adequately for the professional skills needed by a modern day mine then it is not too much of a problem for people to use the same skills elsewhere if the mine closes.

This easy solution to long-term sustainability is not the answer to a heterogeneous population. It is easy to forget the many millions of black workers who have lost their jobs in the last few decades of the declining gold mining industry. Many of these have reappeared in squatter camps in and around Gauteng. The ultimate solution must focus on the employment and work opportunities of a range of exemployees with different levels of skills and education. Job opportunity is the keyword for sustainability. As gold mining declines, platinum mining is booming and there is regular talk of new mines being opened around the Bushveld Igneous Complex. Already the income from platinum group metal sales exceeds the income of the gold mines at their peak.

According to a radio report by Martin Creamer, there is at least one chief executive of a major platinum mining group, LonMin, who has taken a new look at future sustainability ‘Brad Mills is thinking out of the box. He comes from the United States and is a former drill-rig operator from the copper mines. He believes in getting very close to the workers. Mills heads Lonmin Platinum, which is London listed, but with all of its operations in South Africa, and he is earning tremendous praise from our normally tough Department of Minerals and Energy (DME). ‘Mills has moved in, spent a night in the hostels, said that they are totally unsustainable and he is now converting them completely, getting rid of the system and will spend R700 million on 6 000 new employee-owned homes and family units. ‘He is also earning a lot of praise from the Ministry for his social and labour policies.

He has looked at the platinum orebody and said that it is a long-life orebody; therefore Lonmin can afford some big investments in education and housing and has changed the whole paradigm. ‘He has now put R65 million into community education and says his future employees are going to be far more educated and have a mechanized approach and earn far more money. So, he is looking long and has got Lonmin its first 30 years of new-order rights, which are renewable for another 30 years, so he is able to base his corporate social investments on a 60-year horizon and has begun investing accordingly, in the very people that are turning the platinum to account.’ It is this forefront thinking that makes me believe that we could be at the threshold of finding a solution to the long-term sustainability dilemma.

With the support of government as regards infrastructure in the form of multi-level educational facilities, it is easy to visualize activities where the whole mine personnel can collaborate to establish skills for cluster industries. These can serve not only the mine but also establish products and services, which can be marketed more generally. One can also visualize the gradual evolution of quality health, training and recreational infrastructure, which will parallel the history and success of the Witwatersrand gold mining metropolitan conglomerate and which can be fully sustainable. But in this case, the whole population would be involved with common purpose and ambitions. Another keyword is ‘water’—every mine has water and often this is evaporated wastefully on slimes dams. But water also means agriculture and this in turn means small-lot farming and employment. Such thoughts are familiar to readers of Journal Comments. I hate to flog a hobby horse, but I should not be surprised if at an early stage the first of the new-look mines did not start a cluster facility to make enough bio fuel for its own use and then expand to serve the surrounding area..
R.E. Robinson December 2006