Mathunjwa: Machines are great, but we must be able to build them


South Africa will miss the opportunities associated with the fourth industrial revolution if it does not amass the skills to manufacture for it, says Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

Mathunjwa was speaking at a panel discussion on the future of mining in South Africa at the Investing in African Mining Indaba at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

Also on the panel were Exxaro head of human resources Vanisha Balgobind; director and leader of organisation, transformation and talent at Deloitte Janine Nel; and founder of H Robotics Pippa Malmgren.

The panel discussed the potential impact of automation, mechanisation, digitisation and artificial intelligence on jobs at mining operations over the next 31 years.

Solution in industry

Mathunjwa agreed that the fourth industrial revolution was unavoidable for the mining industry. However, he said the solution was not in upskilling to operate machines that take human jobs, but in industrialising to manufacture them.

"There are things you can’t avoid in the world. In South Africa we must be careful not to allow a playing field that isn’t level. Automation must not just come as a vertical workforce revolution. It must be informed by changes to our education and skills development system," Mathunjwa said.

Malmgren said automation and the use of drones would clear the way for mining investments by allowing exploration and drilling without the risk of sickness as well as occupational death and injury.

Balgobind said Exxaro was integrating systems at its operations with automation and digitisation, most in the area of mine maintenance.

Opportunities in skills development

Nel said work was changing through digitisation and the workforce was changing through automation. She said the opportunities for workers lay in developing skills.

Manthunjwa said job losses as a result of the fourth industrial revolution were also inevitable, but that the solution did not lie in teaching mineworkers to operate machines on site alone.

"Automation will reduce workers. We can’t run away from that. We want the endgame to be skills developments that allows us to manufacture locally, not just to operate machines and programs. It is why it is important for us to fix education," he said.

He said South Africa was far from mastering beneficiation because it continued to assemble foreign products instead of innovating its own.

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