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Collaborative approach necessary to make SA mining industry globally competitive again

The mining sector is considered a resource-intensive industry from an energy consumption perspective, says the writer. File picture: Reuters

The mining sector is considered a resource-intensive industry from an energy consumption perspective, says the writer. File picture: Reuters

Published May 20, 2022


Dr Thulani Dlamini

Much like mining is the cornerstone of the South African economy, harnessing research, development and innovation to deliver value is one of the cornerstones of competitive industries.

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South Africa holds more than 80% of the world’s platinum reserves, but extraction is inhibited by challenges that include increasing depths to safely access mineral deposits, low efficiency and productivity with a high cost of production, ageing infrastructure and skills shortages.

Concerns about mineral resource scarcity are widespread, and, at the same time, many countries, such as Australia, Canada and China, are investing significantly in strengthening their mining-related research, development and innovation (RDI) capabilities. This makes cost and differentiation competitiveness a challenge for South Africa.

Accessing reserves at deeper, more dangerous depths

We must admit that holding 80% of the world’s platinum reserves is of little value if the country cannot benefit from the extraction and beneficiation thereof. Changing the way we mine means equipping ourselves with information about the host rock that would enable efficient and accurate decision-making.

We understand that the provision of detailed orebody knowledge ahead of mining is crucial to mitigate falls of ground and ensure optimal extraction. Hence, at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), our team of geophysicists has been optimising a suite of geophysical technologies and techniques for optimised and safer extraction of minerals. The journey towards zero harm has been a multi-year effort, and we applaud mining operations that regularly report zero fatalities.

Through the CSIR Kloppersbos fire and explosion research and testing facility, we continue to provide mines with safety training. In keeping with the drive for digitisation, we are enhancing the facility through the inclusion of virtual reality-based immersive training modules for emergency preparedness, including the correct use of self-contained self-rescuers.

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Upskilling mine employees

Technological innovation is at the core of our business. In fact, we have set up the learning factory, a one-of-a-kind facility developed in partnership with the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Education and Training Authority to provide an environment that facilitates skills development and innovation to leverage opportunities stemming from the fourth industrial (4IR) revolution.

Through this facility, we have made a commitment that technologies developed will not exclude those who may not be technologically savvy. This commitment is also reflected in our engagements with organised labour. Last year, through the Mandela Mining Precinct (MMP), we signed a memorandum of understanding with organised labour to ensure that all relevant stakeholders can participate in the modernisation research agenda.

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As a key player in the National System of Innovation, we realise that the provision of an environment that facilitates skills development and innovation for the operation of 4IR technologies is a necessity. Through the MMP, we have partnered with industry to establish an underground testing facility at Royal Bafokeng Platinum’s Maseve Mine. Indeed, this facility will afford academia, science councils and industry greater collaboration opportunities in the areas of mechanisation and modernisation.

Ensuring legacy mines are not left behind in the digitisation of mining 4IR technologies to improve safety, productivity and efficiencies have become an important value driver for the mining industry. In fact, research by Accenture showed that digital technologies can assist mining houses to unlock approximately R153 billion in value by 2026.

The ability to predict future events related to productivity, safety and financial sustainability will become a key enabler to the mining industry in the future. Predicting the future involves asking the important “what if” questions. Digital twin technologies provide a means to simulate “what if” scenarios to support and inform future decision-making processes. The CSIR’s Product Lifecycle Management capability will make this possible.

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Environment, social and governance: Circular economy and mining under increasing electricity costs

The 2019 Integrated Resource Plan points to the increasing cost of electricity in real terms up to 2050, as the ageing coal fleet is replaced with new generation capacity. For the mining industry, our climate models point to good solar sources in the gold and platinum mining regions of South Africa, thus providing alternative energy generation options, including both battery electric and green hydrogen fuel cell implementations.

The mining sector is considered a resource-intensive industry from an energy consumption perspective. As shown in our recent report on the circular economy in mining, the CSIR believes that mining presents many opportunities for the introduction of circular economy thinking by designing out waste, keeping products and materials in use for longer, and regenerating natural systems. This will significantly improve the competitiveness and sustainability of the sector.

The need to innovate

The Minerals Council South Africa (Mining Council) is of the view that a key opportunity for the South African mining industry is to find carefully prioritised niche themes where the RDI ecosystem can generate short-term revenue streams that enable partners to re-build an ecosystem for the longer term.

Significant investments are required to achieve modernisation goals set by the mining industry and to deliver on the sustainable return on investment for all stakeholders. We have partnered with the Minerals Council and other mining stakeholders in the development of the CSIR Mining Roadmap to revitalise mining extraction RDI.

It will require all stakeholders in mining RDI, including the Minerals Council, mining companies, mining equipment suppliers, government and research institutions, to have a shared goal and integrated plan for the revitalisation of South Africa’s mining industry to become globally competitive in niche areas.

* Dr Thulani Dlamini is the CEO of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). He holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of the Witwatersrand and a Master’s in Business Leadership from the University of South Africa. He has served on many Boards and National Committees. He is a member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and the South African Academy of Science.