The SAIMM is a professional institute with local and international links aimed at assisting members source information about technological developments in the mining, metallurgical and related sectors.
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Journal President's Cornerpages

Wits Mining and the SAIMM — 120 years of parallel histories

This two-volume issue of the Journal celebrates 120 years of existence of the Wits School of Mining Engineering (Wits Mining). Are the two volumes two sides of the same coin? There are a myriad of quotes that refer to two sides of the same coin, albeit in a negative sense. I have previously come across the quote by Ida Pauline Rolf, an American Scientist who lived from 1896-1979, which says ‘form and function are a unity, two sides of one coin. In order to enhance function, appropriate form must exist or be created’. This quote takes a positive look at two sides of the same coin that are complementary. I can easily relate this concept to the symbiotic relationship between Wits Mining and the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM), which can be gleaned from our parallel histories that have fostered inextricably strong links. The ‘coin’ can be seen as the mining industry, which we both serve in our distinct capacities, as an educational institution and a professional body. We both serve the mining industry with a common sense of unity and purpose – to contribute our best efforts to ensure that the industry can grow from strength to strength, because we can survive and thrive only if the mining industry is doing well. I will now turn my attention to the brief histories of Wits Mining and the SAIMM, sketch out some parallels, and indicate why these two institutions are so important for our mining industry, dating back to the 1800s with the advent of commercial mining in South Africa.

Goals, Systems, and Plans

On 12 May 1964 Don Shepherd, a 48-year-old gold miner (actually an underground locomotive driver) from Crown Mines in Johannesburg, set out from the Los Angeles City Hall to begin a solo coast-to-coast run across America. At the time, this was the longest run in the world by an amateur runner. Part of his preparation involved running from Johannesburg to Cape Town. He ran alone, completely unaided, with no backup vehicle, and only a small transistor radio for company. He had no financial sponsorship, and did the trip on a shoestring budget, allowing himself $10 daily to pay for his food and accommodation. He had spent much time saving for and planning the trip. He carried a small backpack containing a spare shirt, socks, plastic raincoat, shoe patching equipment and scissors, petroleum jelly, toothbrush and toiletries, a small water bottle, and a map. Because he didn't trust the American style of running shoes, he posted a parcel containing a spare pair of canvas takkies to the postmaster in Lincoln, Nebraska, to be collected halfway through his journey. Don completed his 3200 mile (5100 km) journey to New York City in 73 days, 8 hours, and 20 minutes, averaging 70 km per day, typically running for nine to fourteen hours a day. His amazing story is told in his book «My Run Across the United States’, published in 1970.

Celebrating the ordinary

Exceptionalism comes easily to South Africans. We are used to living in a country with wonderful weather, spectacular scenery, and the richest collection of mineral wealth in our ground. There is no other country in the world where you have two Nobel Peace Prize winners who lived in the same street. We are the Rainbow Nation of Desmond Tutu; the country where Gandhi formulated his ideas of passive resistance; and the people led by Nelson Mandela that practised reconciliation instead of a civil war. Johannesburg is the city where all of these great leaders lived and worked; it is also the location of the world’s greatest deposit of gold; and is even claimed to be the world’s largest manmade urban forest. I was born in Germiston (now regarded as part of greater Johannesburg; both cities were founded in 1886), and I grew up feeling proud of the accomplishments of the industrialists of my father’s generation. The city was home to the Rand Refinery (the world’s largest refinery of gold, which has refined 30% of all the gold mined in the world since antiquity), and the largest railway junction in the Southern Hemisphere.

Perils of Conferencing

Many people who haven't travelled on business have the impression that it is a rather glamorous and pleasant task to attend a conference. And, of course, it can be wonderful to visit an interesting place for a few days, and come back refreshed with new ideas and perspectives, but this isn't the whole story. There is also the downside of cramped long-distance flights, disturbed sleeping patterns occasioned by differences in time zones, unfamiliar food, and lack of exercise. The American comedian Fred Allen (who incidentally was born in 1894, the same year that SAIMM was founded) said, rather cynically that ‘A conference is a gathering of people who singly can do nothing, but together can decide that nothing can be done.’ He also said ‘I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.’ However, all things considered, conferences still provide a great opportunity to exchange technical information, and to network with one’s peers.

Electronic Communication

During September 2009, a delightful experiment was conducted to demonstrate how slow South Africa’s data transfer services were. A carrier pigeon called Winston was able to transfer 4 GB of data across the 80 km between Howick and Hillcrest, Durban in just over two hours, whereas Telkom’s ADSL service was able to complete only 4% of the transfer in that time. Since then, fibre-optic connections to the internet have improved the situation considerably, at least in some wealthier areas of the country. The bigger limitation is now on the human end, not just the technical capacity.


‘Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what's right’ – Isaac Asimov

One of the characteristic features of a professional society is that its members are governed by a code of professional ethics. The term ‘ethics’ is derived from the Greek word ethos, meaning ‘character’. Ethics and morals both relate to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ conduct. ‘Morals’ often refers to an individual’s own principles or habits that provide a personal compass regarding right and wrong conduct. ‘Ethics’ refers to the rules of conduct that are provided by an external source within a particular context, and can be considered a social system or a framework for acceptable behaviour.


When I travel on aeroplanes, I love to look out of the window, either at the popcorn-shaped cumulus clouds or the striated repeating ripple-patterned undulatus clouds, or the wispy feathery cirrus clouds. While enjoying this ephemeral beauty, I marvel at the atmospheric phenomena (and their governing mathematical equations) that are behind these structures. From the vantage point of 10 km up in the sky, the miniature-looking features on the ground can also be enjoyed. There are hills and valleys, snow-topped peaks, wide open deserts, forests and fields, rivers and lakes. I find that I can easily flip between seeing the world as fragile or as resilient, for both are true. Apart from continents drifting slowly apart, and the occasional impact of an asteroid, or volcanic explosion, the earth has been relatively stable for a very long time, perhaps as long as 4.5 billion years, and scientific estimates say that we have another 6 billion years to go until the expanding sun eventually burns out our planet.

Mining Heritage

Visitors to the SAIMM offices in the Chamber of Mines Building in downtown Johannesburg cannot fail to notice the rather imposing stamp mill in the adjacent pedestrian walkway that was once Hollard Street. This 10-stamp mill went into operation at the Robinson Mine in Langlaagte in September 1886, making it one of the earliest stamp mills on the Witwatersrand. On the nearby noticeboard the fascinating story is told of how the mill was buried in a deep slimes dump and later recovered, exhibited at the Empire Exhibition in 1936, and then erected at George Harrison Park, before being relocated to the Main Street Mining Mall in 2004.

A right to knowledge

Nelson Mandela said that ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’. Southern Africa suffers greatly from a shortage of well-educated people. However, it is a massive challenge to increase literacy, let alone to provide education for all people in the region, starting with early childhood education, through primary and secondary schooling, and culminating with university studies. But this is a challenge to which we must rise, as educated people are employable and have the capacity to build a better society, to create employment, and to reduce poverty.

A sense of belonging

Over the past few months, I have traveled to a number of faraway countries where the culture and customs are very different, and where a South African might be expected to feel alien and alone. However, in all of those places, I have encountered people with whom I have shared values or have found interests in common, and, as a result, there has been a sense of belonging and connection. This need to belong is a basic aspect of being human. Is this, perhaps, one of the things we look for when joining a society such as the SAIMM?