South Africa’s mining industry finds itself in a perfect storm. Supplied
South Africa’s mining industry finds itself in a perfect storm. Supplied

Mining sector needs visionaries, revolutionaries

By Melissa Fourie Time of article published Mar 18, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - South Africa’s mining industry finds itself in a perfect storm: disruption caused by state capture, a failing Eskom and an economy in recession, a global energy transition juggernaut, a climate emergency - and more recently, coronavirus.

Moreover, communities affected by the worst impacts of mining are increasingly organised, and not only calling for a complete overhaul of mining laws, but are winning the battle in court for the right to say no to mining.

Creating a vision for the future of mining that progresses human well-being and sustainability has to start with some honesty.

Not delusional platitudes about a “sunrise industry”, but a frank acknowledgement of the industry’s contribution to the social and environmental crisis we find ourselves in today.

First, at the heart of the myth of mining as a sunrise industry is the assumption that we should overlook the human cost of mining: the exploitation of labour, the devastation of livelihoods and well-being in mining-affected communities, and the failure to distribute mining profits equitably. Our current model of mining has indisputably contributed to the crushing inequality we see in South Africa today.

Second, there is no such thing as “sustainable” mining. It is only destructive. Mines use an unconscionable amount of fresh water, and lock in long-term pollution of our water resources with acid mine drainage. It destroys soil, and even the rehabilitation that is undertaken by mines still leaves us with effectively sterile soil, unavailable for most kinds of food production.

Air pollution from mines contribute to the poor air quality in South Africa’s air pollution hotspots, causing ill health and death for the people living there.

Many mines are also major emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that cause global warming, and coal mines drive development of, or failure to decommission, coal power plants, some of the biggest GHG emitters.

In the climate emergency, we are facing the biggest threat to human society for centuries. Our own government has said that, if international efforts do not limit the average global temperature increase to below 2°C, the potential impacts on South Africa in the medium- to long-term are “significant and potentially catastrophic”.

The 2018 Climate Change Response White Paper records predicted average temperate increases in South Africa’s interior of between 2 and 3°C by 2050, and between 6 to 7°C by 2100. With such temperature increases, life as we know it will change completely, with significant impacts on human health, agriculture, and water-intensive sectors such as mining.

What this means is two things. One, to stay at below 1.5°C and avoid some of the worst impacts of global warming, global coal use must be reduced by 80percent in the next decade. Such a reduction has radical implications not only for the coal mining and electricity industry, but for coal-reliant industries such as steel and cement.

Two, to maximise our ability to adapt to a warmer climate, we have to make radical changes to preserve the natural resources we have not yet destroyed. Given how the way we do mining, which pollutes and sterilises our soil, water and air, this calls for a radical re-conceptualisation of our mining practices.

The green economy will still require mining. Can we do this in a way to allows us to move away from a destructive and unsustainable extractivist model to one that progresses the quality, equity and future of life on this planet?

Wits law Professor Tracy-Lynn Field proposes some of the elements of a new mining sector in a forthcoming book, State Governance of Mining, Development and Sustainability. The first is a transformed state that understands its role as being the advancement of human rights and well-being, and equitable prosperity.

The second is a reorientation of the relationship between people and environment that recognises the sacrifices made when we transform subsoil resources into useful commodities.

Instead of simply authorising mining on the basis of the level of investment, or the financial and technical capacity of the mining proponent, the state must consider whether the end use of the mineral commodity promotes equitable prosperity and human well-being, and whether this justifies the opportunity cost of extracting it.

The third element, also promoted by University of Pretoria economist Lorenzo Fioramonti, is proper exploration of opportunities for mineral recycling, and manufacturing that relies heavily on recycled materials.

It will also require preference for low-intensity, smaller-scale projects with lesser social and environmental impacts, and industrialisation that is labour-intensive to provide employment for the youth bulge in our population pyramid: sustainable agriculture, tourism and the knowledge sector.

Fourthly, we will need a far more rigorous system of protection for important areas of biodiversity, strategic water source areas and food-producing zones from mining. The government has spent decades and millions studying and identifying these areas. What is now required is legal protection, and investing in implementation, compliance and enforcement.

Fifthly, it will require an overhaul of our approach to stakeholders in the sector. Stakeholders usually not recognised, such as the unemployed in affected communities, women and their unpaid care, and artisanal miners, must receive equal consideration and respect.

As Xolobeni activist Nonhle Mbuthuma argues so compellingly, we need to give communities time to give their free prior informed consent, and then we need to respect their right to say no when they prefer a different, more sustainable development path.

In these dire times, we have no more time for myopic mining executives who think that government owes them the right to mine wherever they want, whatever the consequence, or government leaders who continue to perpetuate the same unimaginative model of mining that will be the end of us all.

What we need now is new leaders. Revolution is afoot. Visionaries and fast learners will be the ones to get ahead.

Melissa Fourie is the executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights, a non-profit public interest law organisation of activist lawyers who help communities and civil society organisations to realise their constitutional right to a healthy environment by advocating and litigating for environmental justice.

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