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Journal President's Cornerpages

Reflections on the ‘impossible’ and the ‘unthinkable’

‘Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.
Today, I am wise so I am changing myself.’
- Rumi

During the early weeks of March 2022, the coldest location on the planet experienced an episode of exceptionally warm weather. Temperatures over the eastern Antarctic ice sheet soared by 10 to 32°C above normal. The warm spell smashed records and confounded scientists and observers. This unprecedented event upended expectations about the Antarctic climate system with climatologists using words like ‘impossible’ and ‘unthinkable’ to describe the temperatures in tweets and interviews. While the heatwave temperatures are still well below zero, at –10°C, it is a massive temperature spike by Antarctic standards. Normally temperatures are expected to be about –50°C this time of year. The heatwave is also noteworthy for occurring in March, which marks the beginning of autumn in Antarctica. At this time of year, Antarctica is rapidly losing sunlight each day as it moves into winter. The unusually warm conditions were caused by an extreme atmospheric river (described as a narrow corridor of water vapour in the sky). The moisture diffused and spread over the continent, but it was trapped by a strong high-pressure system, described as ‘exceptionally intense’ (five standard deviations above normal). While these types of phenomena are not unusual, the extent and intensity of this specific event have not been observed before.

antarctica tempersature 15052022It is difficult to attribute a single event to climate change, but unusual meteorological conditions certainly raise concerns as we increasingly see changing patterns and extreme events. On the opposite side of the planet, temperatures near the North Pole also peaked above normal, with temperatures close to the melting point of ice recorded during the same week as the heatwave in the Antarctic. And in Australia, unusually warm waters are stressing sensitive corals in the Great Barrier Reef leading to the fourth major bleaching event in the last seven years.

The heatwave in Antarctica, the unusually hot weather in the Arctic, and the bleaching event in Australia were all reported on within two weeks in March, but they barely made the proverbial front pages. The world arena is currently complex and fraught with increasing possibilities for long-term conflict over national rivalries, economic competition, the impact of unmitigated climate change, and cultural and ideological differences. There is no doubt that the possible futures before us are increasingly unpredictable. Unconventional solutions will be required to address global challenges as what we once believed to be a relatively predictable road ahead, now forks in new and uncertain directions. Economic, social, ecological, and political challenges have been shaking up international systems recently and our confidence in interpreting and understanding these complexities is understandably challenged. An outlier such as the spike in temperature in the Antarctic just adds to this sense of uncertainty.

The Paris Agreement is an addition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), initially agreed to by all 195 countries present at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which included the United States, then under the presidency of Barack Obama. The main aim of the Paris Agreement is to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, predominantly by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Agreement differs from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol in that no annexes are established to lessen the responsibility of developing nations. Rather, emissions targets for each nation were separately negotiated and are to be voluntarily adopted. In a dramatic statement on 1 June 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement and the country formally exited the Agreement on 4 November 2020, the day after the presidential elections. Following his election, President-elect Joe Biden promised to re-join the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, and the United States formally re-joined the Agreement on 19 February 2021. For 107 days, during a time that one might say there has been an unprecedented global agreement that climate change requires action, the United States had not been a signatory of the Paris Agreement. The country likely would have remained outside of the Paris Agreement if President Biden had not taken office.

The brief exit of the United States from the Paris Agreement illustrates the fragility of international systems and agreements. It also illustrates that these types of international rules or treaties are not directly enforceable. Nation-states participate voluntarily and their participation is premised on their paradigms for economics, culture, or ideology. Increasingly, conventional approaches do not address the tasks at hand. Different paradigms are prioritized by different participants, which leads to wide divergence when it comes to the implementation of climate goals. We all view the world through the lenses that seem most accurate to us; we all also draw upon multiple lenses, arranging the elements to suit our view of the world depending on our priorities and personal circumstances.

The United Nations released the new flagship climate change report this month (4 April 2022) which presents the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC). The organization’s chief, Mr António Guterres, said at the launch: ‘This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies. We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5°C limits’ which were was agreed in Paris in 2015. Mr Guterres added in a video message that unless action is taken soon, some major cities will be under water and the message forecast ’unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals’. The newest IPCC report insists that to limit global warming to around 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak before 2025 and be reduced by at least 25% by 2030. While it is valuable to have these insights published and discussed, there are important limitations to the data we use to assess the future. The scenarios assessed by the IPCC report can be thought of as visions of what could happen in the future. These models are not forecasts or predictions as it is impossible for the IPCC scenario database to perfectly assess all potential futures. One comment is that the database should be considered an ’ensemble of opportunity’ as it was not designed to be a single coherent collection of research. The database consists of a number of pathways that researchers from around the world were able to model to answer questions they considered relevant to their research focus. While this is valuable, it is easy to see that there may be multiple scenarios not yet assessed, that still make it possible to limit warming to 1.5°C. There is not a fundamental flaw in the scientific results per se, but we should also understand that the database is not complete. As a global community, we have not yet exhausted all the potential scenarios to avoid missing the target.

Equally, scenarios created with these extremely complex and comprehensive models can only capture part of the realities. For example, local challenges, barriers, opportunities, food security, and social inequalities are not included in the global scenarios. Through science, we attempt to define models and scenarios we can use to evaluate and measure existing paradigms. There was a time when the scientific paradigm stated that Earth is the centre of the solar system or that all things were made up of a combination of earth, fire, air, and water. These paradigms failed eventually in the face of increasingly sophisticated knowledge and something new replaced them. Where paradigms are less precisely defined and the criteria for confirmation or rejection are less clear, the process of change is understandably similarly less well defined and easily confounding. Because of the complexities involved, and therefore the less precise nature of the IPCC database, many people doubt that we are at risk. Others will ignore the complexities and take a more alarmist view of the available data. There is no clear pathway or prediction, but we have enough data indicating that unless we change our ways, something will happen. We are still questioning the complexities of predicting the impact of human behaviour on the planet, and the inequalities amongst nations still define how countries behave or develop. The IPCC report also reflects on the major gap between climate pledges and reality. Nobody should be surprised by the lack of progress. Scientists warn that we are already perilously close to tipping points that could lead to cascading and irreversible climate effects. The socio-economic and geopolitical landscape is also close to tipping points at various hotspots around the world. While we are not sure which of the many futures will realize, we cannot ignore the negative impacts of human activities, whether on a global scale or just in our backyard.

The future is coming, one way or another, and our ways of thinking, our philosophy, will need to be unconventionally wise to navigate the future paradigm. The word ‘philosophy’ literally translates as ‘love of wisdom’, from the Greek ‘philo’ and ‘sophia’ respectively. If we change, we can change the future, despite what feels like overwhelming problems and challenges. With caring and wisdom comes change.

‘I wanted to change the world, but I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.’
- Author Aldous Huxley.

I.J. Geldenhuys
President, SAIMM

“Making the invisible visible”

The United Nations World Water Development Report is a flagship report on water and sanitation issues, focusing on a different theme in each issue. The report provides insight on main trends concerning the state, use and management of freshwater and sanitation, and is launched in conjunction with World Water Day. The intent of this report is to provide decision-makers with knowledge and tools to formulate and implement sustainable water policies. Groundwater has always been critically important to human society and ecosystems, but it has not always been fully recognized as part of water security. The most recent UN World Water Development Report, launched on 21 March 2022, highlighted how countries with high water security risks should make groundwater the heart of sustainable development policymaking. Making the invisible visible was the key message as the UN and many other organizations globally marked World Water Day on 22 March 2022. The UNESCO report is available online (https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000380721).

groundwater 01042022According to the UN water report, groundwater accounts for 99% of all liquid freshwater on Earth, and has the potential to provide societies with social, economic, and environmental benefits and opportunities. Groundwater already provides half the volume of water withdrawn for domestic use by the global population, including drinking water for most of the rural population, who do not get their water delivered to them via supply systems. Furthermore, around 25% of all water withdrawn for irrigation is extracted from groundwater sources. It is noteworthy however that this natural resource is often poorly understood, and consequently undervalued, mismanaged and even abused.

While South Africa is not listed as one of the 30 driest countries in the world, there are significant water challenges in the country. Rankings aside, there are regions where there is water stress due to regional climate and climate variances. This vulnerability to water distress was particularly in the spotlight during the drought that caused Cape Town’s water crisis in 2017, with many residents of Cape Town lining up day and night to fill containers with water from the city’s few natural springs. After months of warnings through an anomalously long drought, Cape Town was on the verge of becoming the world’s first major city to run out of water. Freshwater dams had dipped below 25% of capacity, and levels continued to fall. If the dams fell to 13.5% of capacity, the municipal water network would shut down, and millions of residents would face severe water restrictions. The dams fortunately never reached that critical 13.5% level, dubbed Day Zero. Four months later, the rains returned, and dam levels rose. The shadow of Day Zero however still lingers over Cape Town, and the memory of this continues to impact the city, with the average daily water use in the city still between 700 and 800 million litres, about half what it was in 2014 (www.technologyreview.com, 23 December 2021). But even if consumption remains low, the next drought could yet again challenge the city’s continued efforts. Scientists believe that Cape Town will face more sustained droughts over the next 100 years because of climate change. The drought of 2017 serves as a great example of the impact climate change can have on society and how crucial it is to plan for these impacts. Cape Town’s planned mitigations include diversifying water sources to include groundwater from wells and boreholes, but also includes recycled stormwater, treated wastewater, and household grey water, which could be reused for gardening and other applications. There are also plans for more desalination, controls on water use, leak reduction, and infrastructure investment. All of these coming at a significant infrastructure investment cost.

In the driest, and more remote parts of South Africa, groundwater may be the only water people have access to, and it is crucial to integrate groundwater management into our water plans, both as policymakers and as an industry. Despite being invisible, the impact of groundwater on our daily lives is visible all around us. Our drinking water and sanitation, our food supply and natural environment all rely on groundwater stability and quality. A healthy and stable groundwater system is also critical in the balance of ecosystems, such as wetlands. In deltas and coastal areas, groundwater ensures the stability of the ground and prevents seawater intrusion underground.

The new UN report highlights that groundwater is therefore seen as central to the fight against poverty, and key to food and water security on a global scale. Reliance on groundwater will only increase in the future, mainly due to growing water demand by all sectors, combined with an increasing variation in rainfall patterns. The report describes the challenges and opportunities associated with the development, management, and governance of groundwater across the world, and is worth reviewing as we remind ourselves of the importance of water.

Understanding the role that groundwater plays in our daily lives and how we can use this largely available, yet fragile resource sustainably is critical. Unfortunately, human activities frequently overuse and pollute groundwater, and, in many instances, we do not even know how much water is down there.
Groundwater is out of sight, but it should not be out of mind. What we do on the surface matters underground and will matter tomorrow.

I.J. Geldenhuys
President, SAIMM

Dare to dream big

After two years of uncertainty, 2022 seems to be developing into something that feels more normal. Perhaps some of this normality is just us adapting to the unpredictability and the curveballs we’ve been given, but either way, we are daring to dream big this year. For the SAIMM, the past two years meant many changes to the status quo. With the year now in full swing, I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on the changes and the challenges the Institute faced, and overcame, as well as the plans and projects that emanated from the hard work done by the SAIMM collective.

One of the major changes relates to the SAIMM premises in Marshalltown. For many years, we’ve associated the SAIMM with the offices located in the Minerals Council building, which not only hosted the staff, but also the SAIMM’s rare books library, IT infrastructure, and meeting rooms. The remote working environment forced upon us by the pandemic accelerated the Minerals Council’s decision to downscale their office and the SAIMM was informed that the building will be sold soon. Over the past few months, Sam Moolla and her team worked tirelessly to clear out the Marshalltown offices, downsize office furniture, and fully shift the SAIMM infrastructure to the ‘cloud’. All staff members, including the Journal team, are now able to work remotely. The Institute is currently operating fully as a virtual office. The team is now meeting face-to-face on a rotational basis, with several company members graciously opening their meeting rooms to allow the team to meet and collaborate.

Even before the pandemic, the SAIMM identified the need to be able to meet virtually and opted to implement the use of Zoom to supplement committee and Council meetings. During the lockdown, this decision allowed us to rapidly deliver virtual content, primarily as webinars, and later online conferences, workshops, training courses, and schools. We’ve also in recent years upgraded the membership management system and all membership is now managed via the MYMEMBERSHIP platform. Members can now update their information, preferences, and pay their fees via the membership portal, eliminating the need for manually managed databases. In addition, a member-only content library is available to all members. The library is continuously growing, allowing members to view valuable content online at their leisure. These are just some of the highlights related to the positioning of the Institute to continue to be member-centric and ensuring our systems are optimized.

The flagship plans for 2022 build on the sturdy foundations laid over the past two years. In 2022, we are rebuilding, but also starting new projects and initiatives that will strengthen the Institute and thus the value to members. One of my biggest dreams is to bring back in-person events. Therefore, a key activity is to rebuild the technical events programme towards this end. A flagship event this year will be the PGM Conference. The Platinum Conference has been a feature of our technical programme since 2004, and the 8th instalment was originally planned for 2020. Without belabouring the point, we all know what happened.

I had the privilege to be involved in several of the first seven events, either as a participant, presenter, peer reviewer, or part of the organizing committee. The Platinum Conference organizing committee always tried hard to identify a topical theme for each conference in the series. The list of themes, by year, therefore, is a wonderful overview of the best of times and the worst of times for the PGM industry.

  • 2004 – Platinum, Adding Value
  • 2006 – Platinum Surges Ahead
  • 2008 – Platinum in Transformation
  • 2010 – Platinum in Transition: Boom or Bust
  • 2012 – Platinum, a Catalyst for Change
  • 2014 – Platinum, a Metal for the Future
  • 2017 – Platinum, a Changing Industry
  • 2022 – Enabling a Cleaner World

With the long gap since 2017, the 2022 event will be of great interest to all, with many changes to reflect upon, and as PGMs again surged ahead in 2021 the 8th event is sure to deliver a full programme. The Conference will be held at Sun City from 2-3 November 2022.

Another flagship project for 2022 is the launch of a dedicated ESG-focused committee. The committee was formally constituted in January 2022 and aim to actively seek opportunities for the SAIMM to develop and implement ESG capacity for our membership. The newly formed ESG-S Committee (Environment, Social, Governance and Sustainability) is daring to dream big and will be sharing their plans and projects over the next few months with membership under the leadership of Professor Mike Solomon as the first appointed Chair, ably assisted by Professor Gordon Smith who played an integral role in defining the frame of reference for this initiative.

The Young Professionals Council (YPC) continues to inspire in 2022. On 25 February they will be launching a YPC Northwest Branch. The YPC and the various branches are synergistically working together to revitalize the activities of the SAIMM in more remote areas to maximize the value for our members, especially to support young professionals in the early part of their careers. As we integrate the YPC and Branch activities, more members can participate and network across Southern Africa.

Other plans for 2022 include optimizing our marketing campaigns and streamlining our mailers to members. Our virtual content will be streamlined as well, with webinars to be hosted on Wednesdays aiming to create an established format and build a brand for SAIMM webinars (#webinarwednesday).

There are many more activities and initiatives, some new, some renewed, and the few highlights I’ve touched on aim only to showcase some of the plans for 2022. If you are keen to get involved in any of the committees or projects mentioned herein or are interested in organizing a technical event of your own, please contact Sam Moolla the SAIMM Manager (sam@saimm.co.za).

Let’s dare to dream big in 2022.

I.J. Geldenhuys
President, SAIMM

Capaci occasio

I.J. Geldenhuys 11112021Nurturing the future leaders of Southern Africa’s mineral’s industry is one of the key pillars of the Institute’s value proposition and it is understandably highlighted in the opening statements of the new SAIMM brochure. The sentiments and the purpose statements encapsulated in the brochure are the outcome of an intense period of introspection. This self-analysis was sparked by financial sustainability concerns, dwindling volunteerism and participation by members in committees and on organizing committees for technical events, and while there has not been a mass exodus, membership numbers have stagnated, with fewer employers sponsoring individual professionals to join the Institute.

The SAIMM’s office team has adapted methods, implementing numerous changes to the internal structure and workings of the Institute, and in response to the impact of the pandemic, shifted completely to a remote working model. But a change in tactics requires more than just polishing the silver, and in this context, the Institute is refocusing on maximizing the value to our membership. And, of course, being financially sustainable, and relevant in fast-changing times.

Although many things have changed over the past few decades, and most particularly the past two years, the need for professional development remains a constant. Throughout this period of reflection, the Institute’s purpose has withstood, and is withstanding, the test of time. A glance at the SAIMM’s coat-of-arms reminds us of the SAIMM motto, Capaci occasio which means ‘To the capable the opportunity’. Therefore, developing and nurturing capable leaders for the minerals industry, because the capable create opportunities, is still one of the key pillars of the SAIMM’s purpose. The coat-of-arms, which was adopted in 1965, has become closely associated with the SAIMM brand of professionalism and quality technical events, and the motto is probably more relevant today than ever and is entrenched in what the Institute delivers.

As an Institute, we have emerged with a renewed focus on the core of our existence, strongly underpinned by our history, and the capabilities to deliver on this core purpose. The rapid increase and availability of digital content has created a smorgasbord of options for all. We are flooded with digital content, a trend that accelerated throughout the pandemic. It is also common knowledge that the global mining and minerals community is facing a retirement tsunami, as people with decades worth of expertise wind down their professional activities.

When we think about professional development and growth, it is often in terms of continuing education, job-related skills, or job responsibilities, but we don’t necessarily associate professional development with volunteerism. You may think of volunteerism as one more thing you need to juggle in a busy schedule. But volunteerism can provide personal growth, satisfaction, learning opportunities, development of new skill sets, professional and ethical development, and through volunteer activities one can build a new group of friends or colleagues. The SAIMM is at its core a voluntary association of professionals, that exists for our members, through our members, and acts as a vehicle through which members can share knowledge and enable professional development. The SAIMM only exists because of our membership.

As we near the end of another tumultuous year, it is a good time to reflect on the year ahead and how we plan to spend our valuable time. With these thoughts in mind, the definition of volunteerism is quite powerful, and inspiring.

Volunteering is a form of helping in which people actively seek out opportunities, and involves making considerable ongoing commitments to sustain these involvements over extended periods, often at a considerable personal cost, usually time. Volunteering is not the same as helping though. Helping occurs spontaneously in response to an emergency or unwelcome situation, while volunteering requires seeking out opportunities to help. Finally, and this is the aspect that perhaps makes volunteerism particularly powerful at the personal growth level, volunteers typically do not know those they help in advance and have no prior bonds of obligation to help them.

Volunteerism is an act of giving towards a greater cause.

Volunteering is not a one-way street. Through active involvement in voluntary associations, the volunteer also gains from this process. In the SAIMM, volunteering enhances the value of your membership while your time and efforts help others. The feedback loop is positive and personal and professional growth follows. Young or established professionals find that they stay up to date with developments in their industry by being involved in technical events or reviewing papers. As we engage in these types of activities we constantly add to our continued professional development. For some, their involvement with Institute matters leads to new opportunities, and even new career paths; but, most importantly, professionals, through volunteering, build their formal and informal networks, which in turn strengthen their professional capacity.

The formal and informal relationships built through active involvement in a voluntary activity contribute to a healthy society and healthy individuals living in such a society do better in moving forward to meet common aspirations. Many volunteers do it to give something back (‘paying it forward’) to their profession, especially since someone did it for them earlier in their careers. Volunteer activities can range from serving as a moderator on a webinar session to being an officer of the Institute through Council and Office Bearers. Volunteers could be involved as committee members, serving as committee chair, acting as a liaison with another professional organization, reviewing papers for the Journal, judging student presentations, facilitating panels at technical events, or presenting a webinar or technical talk at a branch meeting. The volunteering opportunities are numerous, and each small act contributes towards the development of capable professionals and a sustainable Institute. The SAIMM is a living institute, and member involvement is the fertile ground in which the Institute and the members flourish.

In conclusion, while any organization ought to be introspective and sharpen its tools, an entity such as the SAIMM relies on membership for content and direction, and growth. It is easily overlooked that the SAIMM can exist only if members are willing to volunteer their precious skills and time in an act of giving towards the greater good of the mining and metallurgy industry.

In the coming year, may the SAIMM and our members find a new and stable footing in a world, where predicting the next wave has nothing to do with surfing. May all our members have a safe and restorative holiday season this summer.
May the road of opportunity rise to meet you in 2022.

I.J. Geldenhuys
President, SAIMM

When one tugs on a single thing in nature, one finds it attached to the rest of the world

I.J. Geldenhuys 11112021Change resistance is the tendency for something to resist change, even when a surprisingly large amount of force is applied. Systemic change resistance is the tendency for a system to reject an attempted change, even though the change is supported over a long period by a substantial fraction of the population. Systems ecologists have increasingly concluded that the conservation of species in isolation from human beings does not address the real systemic issues we are facing. For over 40 years, conservationists have been promoting the need for humans to heed the impact of our activities on the sustainability of natural ecosystem. Despite dire messages from scientists, the system has resisted substantive change.

The theory of change resistance reminds us that, frequently, a culture shift or systemic change process failed because the root cause was not being addressed. The concept of sustainable processing and social responsibility is one such systemic change that is required. Systems ecologists have increasingly warned that the Earth’s ability to sustain the natural ecosystem is at a tipping point, with about 15% of all land globally degraded or severely damaged through human impact. About three out of five people in the world are impacted by damage to the ecosystem. The cost is largely hidden as it is not directly measured or counted, but it is estimated to be equivalent to about 10% of all global wealth.

ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) is a top priority for shareholders and investors in mining and metal extraction. Conservation and sustainability messages are not new, however, but it’s become increasingly clear that we cannot protect an elephant without protecting the grass it walks on – both are key components of the ecosystem and cannot be protected in isolation. Conservationists have tried, and dismally failed. If we attempt to conserve the ecosystem without considering and incorporating human activities into the sustainability plan, the efforts to protect individual species will continue to fall short of the desired goals. Herein lie valuable insights for sustainable and responsible mining and processing. Consider the words of American naturalist John Muir: ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe’.

Individual professionals will require new skills and perspectives to support corporate ESG targets, and most importantly to truly deliver the systemic changes required to ensure ESG is not just another checkbox exercise in an annual report, so that the principles of sustainability and social responsibility become embedded in how we work. Mining and metallurgical industries can remain viable and deliver sustainable growth only through responsible, ethical, and sustainable mining and processing activities. The SAIMM can play a key role here by creating platforms to advance this crucial agenda beyond the buzzword level. Ultimately, responsible and sustainable processing will be brought about through the professionally influenced behaviour of professionals, such as the members of the SAIMM.

I.J. Geldenhuys
President, SAIMM

Discovering Rare Earth Elements

‘All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered;
the point is to discover them.’
– Galileo Galilei

With the approaching SAIMM event focusing on rare earth elements (REEs) in October 2021, I have decided to utilize my final address to discuss REEs, which in my opinion remain a potential game-changer in the Southern African mining and industrial landscape.

The purpose of the SAIMM’s Rare Earths International Conference is to provide more information on all aspects of REEs including mining, extraction, and industrial applications. Before we can delve into the complexities of REEs, we must first understand what they are.

The first element to be considered an REE was in a rock excavated in Sweden in 1788. The element, yttrium, was considered ‘rare’ as it had never been discovered before and at the time the geological term ’earth’ defined minerals that were acid-soluble.

There are 17 REEs, all of which are metals and are often found together due to their similar properties. Fifteen of these elements are found in the range in atomic numbers from 57 [lanthanum (La)] to 71 [lutetium (Lu)], commonly referred to as the lanthanides. In addition, yttrium (Y, atomic number 39) and scandium (Sc, atomic number 21) are also commonly regarded as REEs because they share chemical and physical similarities and affinities with the lanthanides. The following periodic table illustrates where the REEs can be found.

Rare earth elements 29092021The global extraction of REEs has increased significantly since the early 1960s to the extent that they are no longer technically ‘rare’. This increase in production has been driven by an increased demand for REEs, brought about by corresponding technological advances as well as new environmental engineering applications. REEs are widely used in rechargeable batteries, including those in mobile phones, and are thus a critical part of our daily lives. This rechargeable property is also used in the current fleet of electrical and hybrid vehicles. As such, they provide us with a vital tool to combat greenhouse gas emissions from diesel and petrol engines. With further technological and eco-sustainability advances, the demand for REEs is bound to increase in the future.

REE production is currently dominated by China. In 2020, China produced around 140 000 metric tons of REEs; the USA following far behind at 38 000 metric tons. China is also the largest consumer of these metals, which are used in the manufacturing of electronic products for local and international markets.

Although REEs are not ’rare’ in terms of their average crustal abundance, concentrated deposits of REEs are limited in number. Southern Africa is fortunate to have a globally significant REE Mineral Resource inventory, including the Steenkampskraal Mine, located in Western Province, which contains one of the world’s highest grade REE Mineral Reserves.
Considering the combination of quality REE mineral resource assets and our long-established industrial sector, the potential for developing REE-focused industrial sectors in Southern Africa appears to be promising.

I therefore encourage all our readers and members to participate in the SAIMM’s up-and-coming REE conference. Get informed and involved in REEs. They will continue to touch our daily lives and change the world around us.

V.G. Duke
President, SAIMM

Celebrating Ethical Leaders

‘The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.’ –
Albert Schweitzer

A year ago, I presented on the importance of ethical behaviour and ethical leadership at the Annual General Meeting. I believed this to be particularly relevant, given that South Africans often find themselves in positions of uncertainty and insecurity in our volatile political, economic and social environment.

In light of the recent unrest, and prior to ending my term as President of the SAIMM, I feel it necessary to again emphasise the importance of ethical leadership in the South African context.

July witnessed a tragic development in the political arena. Stores were ransacked and destroyed by people displaying callous attitudes that confirmed the divisions within our political mix. This unrest also exposed the extent of the ever-increasing wealth gaps across South African society. For many hard-working individuals, the immediate effect was immense, with shop owners and assistants losing everything, and in some cases even their lives. None of us were completely unaffected by the fear and uncertainty that gripped the nation.

Unemployment is reported at 32.6%, but the reality is that many more people are without work. Our GDP figures indicate little to no real growth since 2014 in 2010 terms (see graph). Our country was already in a precarious economic situation prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequently, approximately half a million more people lost their jobs as a consequence of the hard lockdown. This has worsened the degree of wealth inequality between social classes and there is evidence of a rise in domestic violence.

Pres corner graph 23082021

(Above) Real GDP (constant 2010 prices, seasonally adjusted). Source: Stats SA - Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

The political, economic, and social situation in South Africa requires strong intervention if we are to strengthen our global standing, and more importantly, if we are to increase ethical awareness and solidarity among communities.

It is within this context that I need to express how proud I am to be South African. Our country witnessed an inspiring coming-together of communities seeking to help one another, and where necessary, to protect their local stores from looters. Many caring, honest, and respectful individuals simply connected with people to do what they truly believed to be right – opposing ethical violations.

In addition, we have seen how leaders in our minerals industry, despite having to navigate numerous challenges over recent years, have remained steadfast in their commitment to promoting diversity and inclusivity in the workplace, while also supporting their employees, local communities, and our country. Decisive actions have resulted in positive and meaningful progress on important matters outside of the immediate business of making profits. The timely implementation of much-needed vaccination programmes is one good example.

There are clearly many individuals in our country who have integrity and are able to display ethical leadership. They inspire a sense of community and team spirit within our businesses and our communities.

The South African government can be comforted by the fact that it has the support of the people directing the fortunes of our minerals industry. I believe that we have been tested again over the past month, and that we will once more emerge as a much stronger and more resilient democracy on the other side.

V.G. Duke
President, SAIMM

An agile SAIMM for the agile professional

’The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit.’

- Milton Friedman

I was encouraged to join the SAIMM by senior university staff in the early ‘eighties. Most the students in the industry (about 90%) had bursaries with one or other of the large mining houses, which at the time dominated our minerals industry. Upon employment following our graduation, we were encouraged to continue our relationship with the SAIMM, where Student Members would then progress to Associate Members.

I soon sought recognition as a fully-fledged Member because, even though there were many benefits of Associate Membership, the international relevance of the brand held greater potential for me. I saw membership of the SAIMM as an additional endorsement of the quality of my education and professional development in the South African minerals industry.

Times have since changed, and support for the SAIMM from industry has faltered. Universities still encourage their students to join the Institute, but very few (some 10%) enjoy the security of financial sponsorship from a mining company, or an offer of full-time employment at the end of their studies. A further 20% seem to find employment within six months of graduating, and another 30% manage to secure employment over the following six months. The roadmap to membership for our emerging professionals is now fragmented, and this may have shifted the youth’s perceptions of the SAIMM. To many, the Institute bases its activities on technical papers, webinars, schools, seminars, and conferences. Though we do partake in these activities, they do not constitute who we are, or what we stand for as the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.

The SAIMM is, at its core, a fraternity of professionals who strive to connect with each other, learn from one another and contribute to the industry for the benefit of tomorrow’s professionals.

The Institute is not oblivious to the fact that times have changed, and we are fully committed to doing things differently. We recently reaffirmed our fundamental purpose as:
’ … to provide our Members with a unique collaborative platform where they can develop as agile professionals in the rapidly evolving future of work in our sector.’

Our administrative team have established more effective ways of working, with the aim of performing more efficiently in terms of our four well-established processes of engaging, informing, convening, and educating. These processes are the foundation of our ability to deliver on our promise to our members, as well as to the minerals industry which we all form part of.

Our new mindset looks to embracing technology for increased agility, greater flexibility, and enhanced performance. A full online membership interface system is now in place and our website is becoming increasingly user-friendly. It is rich with information and allows members easy access to the many benefits that the SAIMM has to offer.

Over the coming months, and consistent with our strategic realignment, we will be actively communicating with our members, and with mining companies, on the SAIMM’s contribution to the minerals industry and its employees. We have generated a corporate brochure with a supporting video to facilitate this.

  • Our Membership Committee has established a special working group to incorporate into our membership base, tomorrow’s specialists and experts that our industry will need, to navigate green energy-related technologies and the challenges of environmental and social governance.
  • Our Young Professionals Council, with the support of the Johannesburg Branch, is engaging with the Department of Mineral Resources on a project linking community initiatives with the development of our young professionals.
  • Our code of ethics has been modified to encourage higher levels of self-governance and ethical leadership.
  • We are engaging more closely with the Minerals Council so that our future activities are structured to complement the many initiatives currently underway for the long-term benefit of our minerals industry. This will prevent unnecessary and unwanted duplication of effort.
  • We will also seek to secure firm partnerships with businesses that ultimately benefit from SAIMM-related activities. We believe that many of our activities can be appropriately tailored through these partnerships to secure a better operating environment for our minerals industry over the medium to long term.
  • The SAIMM has secured an agreement to establish a branch in China, and similar discussions have been initiated on closer ties with Turkey.

However, we are going to need a lot more support and involvement from senior professionals in our industry and from long-serving members of the SAIMM if we are to get this right.

When seen to be proudly endorsing the SAIMM and actively participating in our activities, these industry leaders will be providing our young professionals with a much broader insight into the ’depth’ and ’reach’ of SAIMM-related activities, while perhaps also encouraging them to emulate the behaviour of their role models, just as I was encouraged by my mentors.

I thank my peers who contributed to this President’s Corner.

V.G. Duke
President, SAIMM

Cleaning Up

‘It is the worst of times, but it is also the best of times because we still have a chance.’
– Sylvia Earl

We have all heard of the term ‘pollution’, but what does it really mean? How do we impact it and how does it impact us? And how do we solve a problem that we aren’t even fully aware of? We are seeing the environmental threat, yet we continue to contribute to the mess?

There are many types of pollution, each with numerous contributing factors. Air pollution results from the burning of fossil fuels and carbon; ecosystems are destroyed by deforestation and overfishing; our lands and waters are being polluted as we continue to dump our everyday waste onto landfills or into rivers and oceans; and then there is the industrial impact of factories and mining. Mining is a material contributor to environmental degradation and indeed the communities that live off them. The video ‘Zimbabwe’s Gold Rush’ on YouTube is an example of what I see all over the African continent.

On the other hand, there are several success stories that demonstrate there is hope on the horizon.

Chile, for example, has had unbearable smog conditions from the burning of wood for warmth during the winter months. The government started replacing firewood heaters with gas heaters, paraffin, or wood pellets, which are not only cheaper but far more energy-efficient than wood. This has resulted in cleaner air during winter and an improved quality of life for citizens.

Deforestation requires drastic action, and Norway, for example, has banned deforestation entirely. As a consequence, Norwegian entities may not deal with international organizations that contribute to deforestation as part of their production process. This type of strict intervention is necessary if we are to make an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, or want to enjoy a flourishing biodiversity in our forests.

When it comes to water pollution, Sweden has implemented industrial wastewater management systems that remove waste and chemicals from water for re-use as fertilizer or biogas. The cleaned water is then returned to rivers and lakes.

Then there is the impact of mining on the environment. The South African government has introduced suitable legislation and our mining industry has responded well. We are seeing more and more evidence of rehabilitation work being performed by companies prior to the mining operation actually being terminated.

A material contribution has come from a company that re-treats residue dumps all around Johannesburg and the Central Rand. The treated material is managed in a far more environmentally friendly way, which significantly reduces toxic seepage into our groundwater. Land is rehabilitated and can be used again for other purposes.

These are only a few examples of the good things that people are doing in respect of caring for and rehabilitating our environment, but while we continue to find new and innovative ways to improve on these efforts, there remains much to be done, including reducing our reliance on coal as a primary energy generator for the southern African region.

V.G. Duke
President, SAIMM

A Vision: Cooperative Support Centres for Rural Communities

‘Licence to operate remains the top risk in mining and metals for 2021’ EY
– Top 10 business risks and opportunities for mining and metals in 2021

Environmental, social, and governance issues, at both the local and national level, are not only important to our industry, but for our country as a whole. The minerals industry is aware of this and contributes significantly to corporate social investment (CSI) projects, many of which are in rural communities.

Unemployment is at an all-time high (approximately 32.5%). When including people who have stopped looking for a work, the number increases to 42.6%. People in rural communities, who are unable to access employment in the formal sector have to revert to subsistence farming, artisanal mining, or some other small-scale endeavour to put food on the table. President’s Corner

These activities are usually informal, undercapitalized, and under-equipped, which makes it difficult for them to escape from what is essentially a ‘poverty trap’. This could change if separate groupings of a community were able to efficiently cooperate with one another and coordinate their activities so that a hub of economic activity is established that is large enough to attract the attention of government, investors and external markets.

CSI projects in rural areas have not always resulted in lasting improvements. There are initiatives that, although well intended, simply wind down when left to stand on their own. It may be that the objectives of these projects were not truly aligned with the expectations and real needs of the communities they were intended to benefit.

I would argue that sustainable results are more likely to accrue when assistance is targeted at helping people already trying to help themselves, and this can be achieved by establishing enabling community support centres, owned and managed by trusts, where the beneficiaries are the members of the community.

Independently managed cooperative support centres, if carefully considered and properly planned, can economically empower rural communities through the provision of:

  • Suitable administrative structures, which will also facilitate the collection of taxes
  • Shared services appropriate to the local activities
  • Mechanized, or even semi-mechanized, systems
  • Customized training to cater for site-specific requirements
  • Cost-effective routes to wider markets
  • Funding by way of loan guarantees, credit schemes, or tools and equipment leasing arrangements.

These centres can function as conduits for health -and safety-related interventions, or for the distribution of unemployment fund payments and social grants, in hard-to-reach areas.

Young people from our tertiary learning institutions, who often find it difficult to access internships or to secure their first job, could be used much in the same way as medical interns are used in hospitals, to staff these centres. In addition to supervising centre-specific activities, graduates would also be invaluable as assessors to complement the digital educational and training programmes that will be essential for the success of the centres.

Seasoned oversight and systematic procedures will be needed for the management of these centres, together with the related safety, health, and environmental issues. Government could contribute by creating the right environment for other participants to play a role. Donors, non-governmental organizations, and the business community could then provide the supporting infrastructure and systems that a small independent management team would need in order to mentor and guide the young graduates performing the bulk of the work. Experienced retirees could also be encouraged to ‘give back’ and contribute to the success of these centres.

The challenges faced by the minerals industry when dealing with these communities should not be underestimated. However, if enabling cooperative support centres were to be successfully, and sustainably, established in rural areas, then we will have come a long way towards addressing some of the frustrations in local communities, while at the same time providing employment for our youth and engaging with rural communities in a more effective and sustainable way.

V.G. Duke
President, SAIMM