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

The link between success and skills development

I concluded last month’s Corner, which was on the topic of effective technology transfer in the underground narrow tabular mining industry, with a question: ‘do we fully understand the problem and do we have the right approach and skills to achieve a solution?’ I would like to explore the link between minerals industry success and appropriate skills development a bit further this month.

Effective Technology Transfer

I recently opened two SAIMM events, the ’Optimization of the Mine Value Chain’ conference and an ’Underground Load and Haul’ school; events targeted at different audiences but dealing with, among other things, a common challenge – that of effective technology transfer in the minerals industry.

Central to this challenge is the understanding and acceptance that our businesses are complex systems and operate as integral, interdependent parts of larger systems. In a simple model that I often use to map and understand system interdependencies and to which I referred last month, activities are considered in terms of people, processes, and technology, operating in a social and business context.

Diversity, Ambiguity, Change, and Interdependence

Southern Africa is a complex place; the many cultures and languages, the breadth of landscape, biodiversity and weather, the amazing mineral endowment, let alone history and politics, make it so. Therefore ’we do complexity’, it is in the fabric of our lives and nurtures our ability to succeed in difficult times.

Inherent to complexity are four broad interactive dimensions: diversity, ambiguity, change, and interdependence. I have previously commented on diversity, ambiguity, and change, so this month my perspective is on interdependence; where there is mutual dependence between the components that comprise a system. Interdependence exists in a myriad of contexts, but what I will comment on now is interdependency in the mining value chain.

Fly Fishing and Evolution

This month I am going to detour briefly into one of my other passions, fly fishing, while exploring the continuing theme of change and evolution in our minerals industry.

My introduction to fly fishing came from a dour Englishman who moved to Africa after the Second World War. My recollections are of his beautifully crafted cane rod, a masterfully woven silk line, a gut leader which had to be pre-moistened and kept between two damp chamois leather pads, and a tippet which I think was horse hair. His self-tied flies were works of art. Decades later, under the tutelage of a good friend, I too learned fly fishing and fly tying.

Labour Unrest

The labour unrest that has plagued the South African mining industry since 2012 is still ongoing, with the majority of the conflict being centred on the platinum sector. So we as an industry and a nation are still on a slow walk to defining a new set of ‘rules of the game’ that I have described in previous commentaries.

However, the most recent development, the establishment of a Platinum Sector Peace and Stability Accord, is a significant step forward.

Change

This month, continuing with the theme of change, I would like to talk about change, generally, and then specifically in the context of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.

The fourteen chemists and metallurgists who gathered on 24 March 1894 at the North-Western Hotel in Pritchard Street, Johannesburg to form the Chemical and Metallurgical Society of South Africa – forerunner of the SAIMM – met because they had a need, a need to share knowledge and understanding. Why was this need so pressing? In 1888, the MacArthur/Forrest patent for ’Improvements in obtaining gold and silver from ores and compounds’ was registered. This patent essentially covered the application of dilute sodium cyanide solution to recover gold, and as you well know this was the technology that would unlock the real potential of the Witwatersrand gold deposits, discovered only two years previously. This technology was fundamentally changing the nature of the gold industry, and of the chemical and metallurgical professions.

Relationships

I had the privilege of attending the 2013 Mining Indaba in Cape Town in January. I say privilege because, as the event has grown in stature over the years so has the cost of being there. Despite the cost, attendance was excellent with a range of local and global industry participants. However, I felt an uncomfortable sense of disconnect between the fundamental shift in operating context that the South African industry is undergoing and the sense of ‘business as usual’ in the exhibitors’ hall.

A Terrible Year

2012 was, at the risk of understatement, a terrible year for the industry. The global economy was distressed with the European economic crisis; politics, both American and South African, had its impact; metal prices drifted aimlessly sideways or downwards on the back of uncertain demand; input costs, both capital and cash, increased; there was a wave of industry leadership change (at my last count at least ten CEOs changed in 2012); and to close out the year there was the horrific loss of life associated with labour unrest.

A message around learning and change

In the November corner I advised newly graduating engineers to celebrate their achievement, finish their graduate training programmes and achieve professional registration; to find a substantive job as soon as possible, take accountability, be responsible, and learn to be part of a team. I advised them to welcome those difficult jobs in awkward places as adversity builds character, improves creativity, and enhances self-reliance, all of which are critical attributes in the minerals industry.

Depth of our Upcoming Talent

Ihad the honour of opening the 2012 student colloquium last month. What an absolute pleasure to be able to meet and spend time with so many excited, bright, and motivated young people. The presentations were of a high standard technically and generally well presented. This annual engagement reaffirms my belief in the future of our industry – it certainly will be in the hands of fine miners and metallurgists.