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JOHANNESBURG - South Africa has estimated mineral reserves of R30trillion. According to the Department of Mineral Resources a host of new minerals have been discovered.

So while gold is in decline with South Africa now the fifth largest gold producing country worldwide, the country still has vast resources of platinum. Coal is our biggest and fastest growing sector - we are third largest in the world, with more than 600 coal mining applications unprocessed.

South Africa is the biggest exporter of iron ore. We are the largest producer of chrome, platinum, vanadium and second largest producer of palladium and a host of related minerals.

Yet the mining industry talks of a crisis, of minerals depleting by 2030, but in reality, we have close to 150 years left of extraction.

Mining contributes 18percent to South Africa’s gross domestic product and a R407billion spend locally going mostly to locally based multinational companies. Switzerland processes 80percent of gold and platinum, while 80percent of the import machinery used in mining in South Africa comes from Sweden.

Nevertheless, in spite of this wealth, poverty is increasing across the country. Poverty trends in South Africa between 2006 and 2015 increased by 55.5percent to 30.4million; and the number of persons living in extreme poverty (below the 2015 Food Poverty Line of R441 per person per month) increased from 11million in 2011 to 13.8million in 2015.

South Africa has been involved in mining for 150 years. At one stage the industry contributed to a strong manufacturing base. This is no more.

A recent Bench Marks study on old gold mining areas told the tale of communities suffering from airborne diseases, such as respiratory problems, skin diseases, radioactive impacts and radon from decaying uranium impacting every human tissue. Other impacts are hearing loss, black lung disease in coal areas, mine induced disability, bad waste management practices, destruction of the country’s water resources and air quality. Some half a million former miners suffer from silicosis.

The mining industry is up in arms against the controversial Mining Charter, as it feels it was not consulted prior to its publication. Yet the industry has never itself listened to the voice of communities and recognised how it has completely alienated them from any consultation.

Corruption

Corruption Watch released a report stating that mining contracts are open to corruption. We know that it is easier for mines to give the local chief a four by four vehicle and some money to get their social licence to operate, thereby avoiding the more complex consensus engagements with communities.

We have to ask, therefore, how mining contributes holistically to South Africa’s development beyond a few elites creaming it? How can communities empower themselves to ensure they are treated with respect and their human dignity attained, maintained and/or restored? How can we move towards attaining social justice? And how can artisanal miners, who eke out an existence, operate in a way in which they are not criminalised?

Broad based black economic empowerment is geared to the politically connected, to the elites who often deprive communities of their fair share, and who enrich themselves at the cost of community wellbeing. We need a paradigm shift.

The question is how to get the mining industry into a paradigm shift, where it recognises the constitutional rights of communities to participate in democratic processes? How do we prevent the hyenas hijacking shares in the industry to serve their own self narrow interests? How do we tackle the corrupt nature of mining contracts?

Now we sit on the edge of a precipice where we can end up in flames. Let me give some examples.

Our Bench Marks Action Voices App records the daily struggles of communities against mines and local government that seem inept at seriously dealing with the problems for which they are largely responsible. A community, Tigane, is suffering after the local mine retrenched workers, leaving the community poverty stricken. After the mine was closed the satellite police station was also closed with rampant crime now putting fear into the hearts of people.

Most of the close to 40 communities that the Bench Marks Foundation works with confirm that they have seen little or no benefits from mining.

Yet another aspect of the mining crisis is the presence of artisanal miners, or Zama Zamas. It is estimated that there are 30000 Zama Zamas in Gauteng. These are people whose desperation to earn an income has forced them to work the remaining minerals in abandoned mines in dangerous conditions. Their contribution to the economy as a whole cannot be denied. With a dependency ratio of 1:8, these 30000 miners provide sustenance to a quarter of a million people. Bench Marks has proposed a clear strategy for incorporating these people into the formal economy.

We cannot go on pretending that all is well in mining and that the only real issue is policy certainty. All we are doing is exporting our natural treasures. Its called extraction economics. The profits largely go offshore.

Most of these challenges can be dealt with if we addressed the inherent power dynamics of heavily skewed power relations on the one hand, and addressed the issue of social justice for communities on the other hand.

For seven years Bench Marks has worked on the Independent Capacity Building Fund, which gives resources to communities.

These include technical access to specialist expertise and for the community to empower itself with information and knowledge. It also involves communities developing the ability to organise themselves, arrange meetings and consultations, and explore alternatives, and if the mine is accepted, to determine how it will relate to the community.

Access to social justice is urgently needed. Communities with problems at present have nowhere to turn.

The very companies we are talking about claim to respect communities, engage with them, bring benefits to community’s wellbeing and respect the environment and want zero harm. But this is far from the truth. To address this need Bench Marks has also developed the Independent Problem Solving Service (IPSS), an alternative dispute resolution approach. Our experience tells us that company mechanisms don’t work.

Evidence

Hard evidence is always required in these matters. Such evidence is not always easy to lead. For example, if a community complains about cracked housing the mine investigates and finds the house cracked because it was built of inferior material. Thus the problem is not resolved and communities get angrier. Bench Marks community investigators have also found that the use of company grievance mechanisms doesn’t even get a response when they report a problem.

The IPSS that Bench Marks has developed is based on an interventionist approach using skilled impartial facilitators to act as mediators between communities and mining companies using dialogue and trust building to resolve problems in a non-adversarial and non-evidence based system.

A second key aspect is access to justice, including access to information, knowledge, geographic issues and psychological impacts, and trusting, feeling welcome and comfortable with the process.

In this way we can begin to address and resolve the many problems that communities experience.

The challenge is whether mining companies will respond appropriately, be willing to significantly shift and become of part of the solution, or will they stick with old discredited practices that cause all these problems? We want sustainable communities that can determine their own future. If the industry does not fully participate in and trust this new approach it must face the consequences of ongoing disruption to its operations that will only intensify over time. We cannot afford to let the country go up in flames.

Bishop Jo Seoka is the chairperson of Bench Marks Foundation.

- BUSINESS REPORT