The world as we know it, for better or for worse, would not be possible without mining. However, the sector suffers from a significant image problem.
The issue was highlighted at the Platinum Group Metals (PGM) Industry Day held in Johannesburg on April 6, an event organized by Resources for Africa. Natascha Viljoen, CEO of Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), told the conference that Anglo American had offered to donate to the Red Cross to help with its humanitarian work in Ukraine.
The offer was declined on the grounds that Anglo is a mining company.
The inference was clear: the Red Cross did not want to accept what it considered to be “dirty money”. Much of the capital generated by mining over the centuries has indeed been contaminated – and much of it still emits a stench – but times are changing.
And love it or hate it, you can’t do without mining. The Red Cross does not carry out its commendable work on horseback, using only materials derived from wood, stone and animal skins.
“The reality is that they can’t accept money from us because it goes against their values,” Viljoen told DM168 in an interview. “That’s the reality of the perception that exists around mining.
“This is not where we need to be. The question is, how can we change that? In my opinion, there are two things. I don’t think society understands the role that mining plays and I don’t think there’s an appreciation that if it’s not cultivated it’s exploited and that none of our societal realities around of us would not have been possible without mining,” says Viljoen.
It’s certainly a narrative that Anglo pushed. Mark Cutifani, the affable Australian who is stepping down as CEO of Anglo, told a virtual conference last year that “…mining simply makes life possible on this planet.”
By this he meant human life or the modern world we inhabit. It is doubtful that anyone who claims to want to stop all mining tomorrow also aspires to live in a cave.
Mining’s past is certainly checkered and much of its footprint is downright appalling: the destroyed lungs of people with silicosis, countless violent deaths underground, workers subjected to grotesque exploitation, and a toxic ecological legacy. which includes climate change. Sexism and racism in a work environment long defined by outdated notions of masculinity persist.
Concerns remain conflict minerals in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the illicit gold trade is driving vicious levels of crime, coal emissions continue to burn our planet, and looting continues with the elaborate use of tax havens.
The “resource curse” continues to bewitch some economies, which are dependent on the intoxicating lure of raw materials but fail to save or diversify during periods of falling prices.
On the other hand, the transition to a green economy is not possible without mining – solar panels and wind turbines don’t grow on trees, while electric vehicles require a range of mined metals. Companies such as Anglo, in the face of investor and public pressure, dumped coal assets as they aimed for net-zero emissions.
Health and safety in South Africa and other mining jurisdictions has seen tremendous progress. And publicly traded mining companies, in particular, have embraced environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues with converted fervor.
One consequence is an emerging shortage of critical skills, as the sector’s lingering reputation puts off young people. Impala Platinum recently flagged this as a concern in its fledgling operations in Canada, where more than half of the mining workforce is over 45 years old. Over the next decade, an additional 100,000 new workers will be needed for Canada’s mining sector and new labor market entrants are barely flocking to the mine.
In South Africa, this skills shortage will mirror broader trends in the pay gap, as skilled workers get a premium while wages for unskilled and semi-skilled workers stagnate or decline.
Viljoen told of a young female executive at Amplats who wouldn’t tell her friends where she worked – out of shame. His concealment of his work and refusal of a Red Cross donation stem from the same thing: the perception that the mining sector is deeply flawed.
It’s almost as if this young woman worked for the mafia or Tony Soprano offered to donate to the Red Cross.
“The reality is that even in a country like ours, even with its high unemployment rates, as soon as you have qualified people, they are not ready to come. [and] working in the mining industry because of the perception,” Viljoen said.
The industry can also be damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t, on some fronts. Automation, for example, is seen as a job-consuming trend. But apart from the productivity gains, it also makes the industry a much safer and healthier place to work.
“We often have this idea that automation will destroy job opportunities. I think we could end up in a place where unless we automate, we won’t have people working in the mining industry,” Viljoen said.
She then asked how the narrative could shift gears.
“We’ve done an incredible job around the world, but the only thing people see is when you have a tailings dam failure,” she said – an obvious reference to the dam disaster. of Brumadinho in 2019 in Brazil which killed 270 people.
“They only see things that are bad, and when it’s bad, it’s really bad. But it must be accompanied by an honest narrative. So from an ESG perspective, that’s how we do our job and make sure our safety record improves and things like that,” Viljoen said.
The world of mining is in many ways kinder and gentler than it was a few decades ago. But the public remains skeptical. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly newspaper Daily Maverick 168 which is available for R25 from Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. To find your nearest retailer, please click on here.