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Journal President's Cornerpages

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


‘An interruption in the usual way that a system, process, or event works’ (the Cambridge Business English Dictionary
(© Cambridge University Press)

Covid-19 has done exactly this. We all had to innovate, creatively adapt, and behave differently as the pandemic disrupted our lives and our livelihoods. Our usual routines and mindsets changed as we witnessed the various ups and downs of 2020 unfolding.

  • It was good that families were able to spend more time at home with one another. However, it is unfortunate that at the same time, South Africans witnessed an increase in domestic abuse and violence.
  • A clampdown on the sale of alcohol saw a dramatic drop in trauma-related hospital admissions, and this freed up beds for Covid-19 patients. There
    were sadly many consequent job losses, which highlighted how urgently our social services need to be improved. To compound matters SAB Miller recently announced that the company was withdrawing an investment of some R2.5 billion into the sector.
  • Restricted travel has meant less congestion on roads and pollution levels around the globe have reduced. There have been many reports of increased sightings of animals in areas previously void of wildlife.
  • Social isolation has, unfortunately been emotionally unhealthy for many, especially for older folk confined to retirement homes. We have also seen increased levels of depression in younger people living on their own, and among our youth, who should be spending more time socializing with peers.

Our businesses were all affected in some form or another by the pandemic. Employers generally responded quickly at the onset of the lockdown by changing their processes to allow people to work from home. Many have actually benefitted from this disruption and it is now unlikely that they will return to their pre-pandemic ways of operating.
These extraordinary times required careful thought on changing strategies and methods. Our mindsets and paradigms will probably never be the same again, but this has enabled us to adjust for enhanced performance in ways that we may not have previously considered. Entrepreneurs and leaders found creative and innovative ways to deal with the many levels of disruption brought about by the pandemic. It was interesting to see how one restaurateur converted his premises to a drive-in facility, which allowed him to not only survive 2020, but also to prosper as his market share began to improve.
Last year was difficult. It was filled with, at times, unwanted changes that are set to continue into 2021. Although businesses responded remarkably well to the disruption, the profit margins of many were severely impacted, and government revenue from taxes was substantially lower at a time when significantly more expenditure was incurred on managing the pandemic. This has affected our already poorly performing economy, to the extent that an immediate re-adjustment towards economic reform is urgently required. This may, hopefully, have already started, with refreshing signs of improved collaboration between unions, government, and civil society.
The SAIMM is aware that the post Covid-19 world is going to be very different to that of pre-2020, but a big challenge has been the difficulty in predicting just how different the future is going to be. Therefore, despite some radical changes in our collective mindset, our approach to dealing with this uncertainty has been an exercise in agility, while also ensuring meaningful and steady progress on implementing the changes required of the Institute.
The global trend to moving online is now well established, and the SAIMM is following suit. 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. Our staff are now also placing greater emphasis on communicating and marketing our activities through digital and social media platforms

V.G. Duke
President, SAIMM

2020 - the good, the bad, and the ugly

I was recently reminded that it is customary to reflect on the past 12 months in the December Journal.

We live in a beautiful country with a wonderful climate and amongst South Africans who are usually able to laugh at themselves and handle life’s challenges. One just needs to tap into social media to see evidence of this. This collective ability to deal with stress was tested to the limit when, early in the year, Covid-19 brought on a level of uncertainty that many of us had not experienced before. It has been a tumultuous year and one that I am sure none of us will ever forget. Ongoing media reports highlighted some of the good, the bad, and the ugly of 2020.

The Good
For the first time in a long while, we saw signs of courageous leadership in South Africa. Despite knowing that our country would have to take a huge economic hit, brave unpopular decisions were taken to make it possible for us to assist those impacted by the virus.

Covid-19 forced us to stress-test our current technologies and the way we structure our businesses. People had to adapt, innovate, and make decisions around change. They quickly realized how easily it is to work differently. Our industry seemed to take Covid-19 in its stride and just carry on, while its employees learned how to operate outside of the office. Many of our members found that they were busier, more productive, and generally very comfortable using the various digital platforms available to them for communicating or holding virtual meetings.

The SAIMM successfully held its first digital Annual General Meeting after having had to rapidly adjust to a new way of operating at the onset of Covid-19. I was impressed at how quickly our staff and members working on the Technical Programmes Committee embraced the challenge and just did what needed to be done to carry on delivering to our membership base.

In fact, this was also true for our country as a whole, where we witnessed how South Africans from all walks of life rallied to keep the wheels turning at our schools, universities, hospitals, and many other institutions. In many ways, the pandemic brought people together, with some like myself spending more time with family as we worked on our homes and exercised together in the garden.

The Bad
The world was not prepared, especially some of the ‘first world’ countries. At home, the initial five weeks of complete isolation came quickly and unexpectedly. It brought with it both economic and social stress. Routines were disrupted and for many, social isolation was emotionally draining.

We witnessed people having to take salary cuts, suffer job losses, and take on debt just to survive, and for most, it will take a long time to recover. Members also found themselves working longer hours at home while having to look after children, spouses, and the elderly. Overall screen time increased and I expect that the gaming and streaming industries did very well.

Covid-19 exposed the true depth of divisions in South African society as the ‘haves’ seemed to fare better than the ‘have-nots’. The less fortunate appeared to be more exposed to the consequences.

The Ugly
When considering the ugly, three things stood out – American politics, local corruption, and domestic violence. It was unfortunate to see how easily prejudice, uncertainty, and fear were able to polarize society as a consequence of American politics.
Pools of anger, resentment, and desperation during the lockdown revealed the raw wound of domestic violence that exists in our own society. This also highlighted how fragile we are when it comes to managing corruption. I found it difficult to comprehend how easily and quickly corrupt opportunists were able to pounce and take advantage of Covid-19 funding.

Looking forward
We need to remember, though, that we hear only what the media tells us, and should be more discerning in what we choose to believe. While it is good that we are informed by the media, we should regularly ask ourselves what did we not hear? 2020 was hard and we now need to move into 2021. I believe that a positive atmosphere is emerging, with people more optimistic about a brighter future, and a hopefully a vaccine for Covid-19.

We are seeing improvements in the markets, a resurgence in commodity demand, and an uplift in our industry. There is a general increase in interest in projects previously placed on ice.

Persistent guidance by President Ramaphosa is resulting in visible signs of authorities acting against corruption, and positive efforts at Eskom and SARS.
There is general recognition by everyone that things are not going to be the same and that we need to change the way they think about business. The world is now seeing things differently, and this provides a good space for people who want to change. The industry has got off to a good start and our leaders, many of whom are associated with the SAIMM, can accelerate these efforts.

Our members don’t need to be holding on to the norms of the past. The fourth industrial revolution, or 4IR, has brought on significant technological progress. Systems have improved, efficiencies are up, and we now need to work harder on developing the human capacity needed for us to simply stay abreast. Let’s meet the challenge and continue to innovate. Look at your own individual sphere of influence and consider how you can contribute to the collective efforts of everyone else.

All in all, it has been a difficult and eventful year, and now it is time to recharge. The SAIMM is looking forward to 2021, and I would like to thank all Fellows, Members, the Secretariat, and our Company Affiliates for their continued support of the Institute and its activities. I wish all our members, colleagues, and loved ones a peaceful holiday and trust that you will all have a blessed festive season.

V.G. Duke
President, SAIMM

Diversity and Inclusion in the Minerals Industry (DIMI)

v Duke 02122020At the AGM, I spoke about why the SAIMM needs to adapt to a new and more modern mining industry. To this end, we have developed a strategy aimed at repositioning the SAIMM brand in the minds of our members, and indeed all of our stakeholders. There are six key components (or ‘Pillars of Value’) in our overall value proposition, and I intend briefly elaborating on each one of these over the coming months. One of these pillars is the importance of Diversity and Inclusion in the Minerals Industry (DIMI).

Let’s ‘take stock’ by simply looking at our gender mix. Our industry has a workforce that is made up of approximately 87% men and only 13% women. This is consistent with what we see in the SAIMM membership base, where about 11% of our 2 487 members are women.

The graph below reveals the makeup of the mix of female members in the SAIMM. It also shows that these numbers are dwindling, a trend which I believe can and should be reversed. Indeed, our Institute is well positioned to raise awareness on issues of diversity (i.e. around gender, ethnicity, religion, and other diversifying factors).

pres corner graph1 02122020We all know that people are different, yet we are not always willing to embrace the rich diversity that this introduces into our industry. Our places of work should be free from any form of discrimination around, inter alia, race, culture, sexual orientation, age, gender, religion, and disability. Our leaders should be able to challenge conventional thinking by exploiting the mix of ideas (i.e. creativity) that usually materialises with the wider variety of skills, experience, and cultural approaches that comes with diversity.

We can all contribute by simply distancing ourselves from the levels of polarization that we currently encounter across our broader society. In fact, we should move beyond just workforce diversity and towards also embracing inclusion. This involves making it easier for people from different geographical regions, economic environments, and cultural groupings, to participate and build careers in our industry.

It is for these reasons that your Institute has established a DIMI Committee to:

  • Advance issues of diversity (gender, ethnicity, religion, and/or other diversifying factors) and inclusion
  • Raise awareness regarding DIMI in the industry
  • Create platforms for the development of strategies and decisions that will contribute to a more diverse and inclusive workforce
  • Encourage and/or promote diversity on our committees and the SAIMM Council. This can materially complement the efforts of the mining industry as it seeks to establish a representative pipeline of senior leaders for the mining industry
  • Establish collaborative linkages to support DIMI.

pres corner graph2 02122020The DIMI Committee is currently chaired by Professor Selo Ndlovu. It is made up of passionate professionals from both industry and academia who are committed to making a real difference. They are particularly interested in the development of students and tomorrow’s leaders. Online webinars, seminars, and workshops will be used to guide and assist students, who are usually unprepared for the range of cultures encountered in the working environment. This will lead to better understanding, better integration, and enhanced performance, which will in turn help us to retain their potential in the mineral industry and more particularly in the SAIMM.

The DIMI Committee is also collaborating with Women in Mining South Africa (WiMSA), and I was both privileged and pleased to have been invited to attend the Minerals Council South Africa’s recently-held inaugural National Day of Women in Mining, which was a great success. A DIMI conference is being planned for August 2021 and papers have also already been published in the Journal of the SAIMM on the subject of diversity.

‘The vision of SAIMM through the DIMI committee is to provide the industry with knowledge building platforms that will help empower the Southern African Minerals Industry through diversity, gender parity and inclusion.’

V.G. Duke
President, SAIMM

Looking to the future

Mining contributed almost 16% of South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 1994, but this has since declined to about half that amount. The country has not benefitted enough from our industry, which has huge potential even when having to compete in an increasingly efficient global environment.

There are many reasons for this, but I am now seeing encouraging changes afoot which lead me to believe that we may have turned a corner, and could well see positive growth going forward.

If this is the case, then we will need to import skills, and this will be at a premium. Many of our engineers have either emigrated or left the industry. The 2018/2019 Annual Report of the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) revealed that nearly half of our 21 500 registered professionals are either retired or over the age of sixty, and that our candidate engineers don’t seem to be progressing to registration as professionals.

prescorner02112020The data also highlights the shortage of registered professional engineers, with only one being available for every 2 800 people living in the country compared to international norms of one engineer for 40 people. This must be a concern, because the ability of our captains of industry to exploit the full potential of our orebodies and supporting resources on a sustainable basis will depend on the quantity and quality of the professional engineers available to them.

We need to develop our own capacity, and this should start at the primary schooling level. There is not enough emphasis placed on enhancing the ability of our children, at this early stage, to properly benefit from the teaching of maths and science at the secondary schooling level. If we get this right, we will have a larger pool of talent to attract into the engineering fields at our tertiary institutions. I understand that there are a number of initiatives being developed to address the relatively low levels of maths and science literacy, including the ‘Stemulator’ programme, but a lot more effort is warranted.

Our universities are sound and they are working hard on producing engineering graduates, but graduates need to be put to work so that they can be developed into professionals in a reasonable time. It can take four to five years to produce a graduate, followed by the additional two to three years of internship and mentoring required before they are eligible for registration as an engineer.
This would be the shortest route, but our graduates can achieve this only if they are given an opportunity to work and learn. Unfortunately, many of our graduates remain unemployed and are struggling to find employment.

The SAIMM established the Young Professionals Council (YPC) to contribute to tackling this problem, but they need a lot more support from our industry’s leaders. The Johannesburg Branch of the Institute is also committed to developing our youth and has agreed to work closely with the YPC to create linkages with key people in our industry, and to extend our reach into the rest of the Southern African region where we have branches that also need support.

If our industry is indeed turning the corner, surely we can, and should, do more to support the efforts of the YPC and Johannesburg Branch. I would ask anyone in a position to make a difference to do so by contacting either Shepherd Manjengwa ( of the YPC, or Danie Jensen( of the Johannesburg Branch

V.G. Duke
President, SAIMM

The last article

Indeed, this is my last President Corner’s article as I prepare to hand over the baton to my successor and incoming President of the SAIMM, Mr Vaughn Duke. Twelve months has passed since I assumed the role – how quickly time has gone by. However, it is pleasing to point to a few meaningful activities during my tenure, viz.,

  • The progress with the strategy development for the SAIMM under the leadership of Alastair Macfarlane
  • The progress with managing our finances to reduce costs and chart our way to a positive balance, led by Vaughn Duke
  • The prompt response to the impact of COVID-19 and hosting events online to continue our objective of delivering quality and professional knowledge to our members. The leadership of Isabel Geldenhuys and the TPC has ensured that the SAIMM continues to demonstrate its relevance and value-add to members
  • Establishing a practice of continued learning and knowledge sharing among the Council members through presentations from industry and subject matter experts
  • The response and adaptation to an ‘unavoidable digital environment’ by the SAIMM office staff as we were all forced to work from home. As I write this last article, the situation has not changed and is likely to prevail for a while longer
  • Establishing a link with the Minerals Council South Africa, which has the potential to strengthen over time and as the industry evolves in its growth.

Looking ahead, I’ll continue to serve the SAIMM as a Past President, carrying on with the key workstream of Professional Development as delegated to me from the strategy development process. My commitment to and passion for the Institute (and the industry) has not waned since joining in 1992 as a fourth-year mining student at Wits. The Institute holds a privileged and unique role in the mining, minerals, and metals industry. As this industry plans for a resurgence and growth to contribute to the country’s economic development, we must all lend a hand to the strength of the Institute. In this regard, transformation is a critical area of focus for this strength building, recognizing and acknowledging the changed South African and industry context, especially in terms of people demographics. Transformation is not an organic process, but one that requires deliberate effort and resolve based on human development and progress for our country’s society – transformation has to remain top of mind and the Council’s agenda for the current and future leadership of the Institute.

M.I. Mthenjane
President, SAIMM