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Bheki Dlamini
 
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What happened to Sustainable Mining?

02 May 2014, 21:30

What happened to sustainable mining? Will Merafong become a ghost town?

I had the privilege of attending a ceremony hosted by the Merafong Local Municipality jointly with a local mining giant to hand over various projects developed by the mine in order to uplift the local communities. The list of projects that were handed over included a school library, extra classrooms, school labs as well as funds donated to various beneficiaries. I say well done to the mine for taking this initiative and contributing towards a better community, and congratulations to the beneficiaries of these initiatives.

The fact that this is one of the greatest contributions that the mine could make to the community only worried me. How short sighted have we become? Will these contributions benefit the communities post mine closure?

I have always had a keen interest in mining operations, especially the environmental, economic and social aspects of these operations. That has a lot to do with me growing up in Merafong, a mining town west of Johannesburg. Or is it my employment history? You see, I used to work for a mining giant at the time when employees were the most valuable assets for a mining operation.

My concern with the mining operations has little to do with the employees’ remuneration packages, but rather the social wellbeing of the employees as well as the environmental impact of these operations. Not forgetting the survival of the towns post mine closure.

In the past few years, I have noted a significant shift on how the mines operate. The focus was once on Sustainable Mining, not that anyone ever clearly understood the exact meaning of the term, but it had to do with the empowerment of the employees and the communities so as to enable them to continue to exist post mine closure. What a great time it was. Employees were happy and knew exactly where they stood with regards to their future employ.

Today, the mines are somehow completely detached from the workforce and the communities that they once closely supported and all the current support is compliance driven, and short-sighted. The notion of Sustainable Mining is long gone. Centres that were established by the mining houses to empower the employees and the general members of the communities are gone, with the service providers either retrenched or reassigned.

As part of the Sustainable Mining concept, the mining giants established departments to deal with the empowerment of their employees on the social, health and financial wellbeing. One specific mine went as far as allowing a local business, a massage parlour operator, to operate from the mine’s premises and serve the employees residing at the mine’s hostels in order to improve their wellbeing. Everyone was happy.

Well, other than the massage parlour, these departments aimed to ensure that the so valuable employees could make financial decisions that would impact positively on their lives even post mine closure. The health department dealt with medical matters such as HIV and TB, among others, and provided guidance on how to live positively and healthy even when affected by these illnesses. These departments have either been significantly scaled down or shutdown completely, leaving the employees in the dark. The mood has now become sombre. Uncertainty is the order of the day.

This brings me to the matters that concern me the most, the fact that Merafong may become a ghost town, and an environmental wasteland. It has happened before, mining towns becoming ghost towns and wastelands once the mining operations ceased.

With the prospect of mechanization looming as well as on-going strikes, more people are likely to be retrenched over the next few years. Is this workforce prepared for this? Is our small town prepared for this? Are there other economies being developed locally to absorb this workforce?

With the increasing depths of these mines, mechanization is inevitable and signs have started to show that this is the direction most mines will be taking. In preparation for this shift, some operations are now letting go of their housing assets. They are selling these to the very same employees that might be unemployed soon. Of course, the mines will not need these assets with mechanization possibly taking over so why not make some money out of them in the meanwhile. So people will have houses, no income and no one to prepare them for this shift.

The bursaries and skills that the mine is bent on providing are linked to the mining operations. This simply means that upon mine closure, these graduates and skilled workforce will have to seek alternative mining employment outside of Merafong. Yes, leaving the town.

The local economic development setup of these operations, as approved by the regulators, only provides for the empowerment of small businesses that in turn service the same mines. Again, when the mines close their doors, these businesses will cease to exist. Shouldn’t there be some level of diversification? One that would allow another industry to rise and sustain the town post mine closure?

The lifespan of some mines is less than 30 years and these mines will probably be highly mechanised within the next 10 years or so. A local mine recently closed its doors leaving hundreds unemployed and unpaid even though it had a few years to go. So the lifespan of the mine is not necessarily cast in stone, another serious concern.

What happened to sustainable mining? What will happen to the families when Merafong becomes another ghost town? Will this please the investors or it will be a matter of saying “we were not aware of this”.

This is just a teaser; a lot will still be shared on the development of the conduct of the mining houses….

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