Mining has always been an industry that enables human progress.
Whether it is through the precious metals and minerals that make modern life possible, or mining’s direct economic contribution through royalties, taxes and employment, mining plays a part in all our lives.
Like every economic sector, mining is evolving.
Technological innovation is fundamentally changing the nature of the industry.
With technology that is available today and others that we are developing, we can now imagine mines with smaller physical footprints, using more precise extraction techniques that enable us to mine only the most valuable ore, thereby reducing waste, using a fraction of the energy and drawing almost no fresh water.
These will be mines where people will be out of harm’s way, so everyone goes home safely at the end of each day.
In a world of diminishing ore grades, constraints on water and energy, and the resulting increasing costs, the changes are not just an opportunity, they are a necessity if mining is to be truly sustainable – in every sense.
These changes are a non-negotiable for a mineral-rich country like South Africa to compete for capital and grow its mining industry.
While these changes are exciting and aligned with society’s rightly increasing expectations of us as an industry, some may feel unsettled about what role they will play and what it may mean for jobs.
The reality is that no one knows exactly. What we do know is that mining is not alone – what some refer to as the fourth industrial revolution is upon us.
So, in considering the implications, we will need to work in partnership with governments, labour, other industrial players and civil society to capture and responsibly manage the enormous opportunities that we see.
At its most basic level, think of a truck driver. They won’t necessarily need a driving licence and be physically in a truck to drive it.
As autonomous trucks become the norm, the driver will instead control the truck from cutting edge operation centres, utilising digital skills and technology to optimise efficiency.
These shifts are well under way across the global industry including in South Africa, opening up employment opportunities to a far greater diversity of people.
The nature of work is changing, the type of employment may change and the relationship between mines, their host communities, and governments is likely to change.
We must all be ready and repositioned for a future that embraces, and manages, this change responsibly. Together we must build our “social licence to innovate”.
This may mean a new social contract for mining in South Africa, one where innovation is seen as an enabler for mining’s sustainability as a business activity and one where economic opportunities in mining communities are not so reliant on mining.
To thrive in this new world, we must focus on education and training that is targeted to the skills required for mining’s (and other industries’) future, reskilling our employees for broader opportunities and higher paying jobs.
We must also collaborate with government on sustainable job creation programmes and creating a modern and agile regulatory framework that fosters innovation and supports mining’s contribution to society.
Forging this new approach will require a concerted effort by mining companies, governments, labour and communities to imagine a different future for the mining industry.
Ultimately, mining’s contribution to regional economies will continue and grow, but it will inevitably look different.
While Anglo American doesn’t have all the answers, we recognise that we must act. One of the ways that we are doing this is by turning the traditional model of socioeconomic development on its head.
This innovative approach – or collaborative regional development as we call it – starts by identifying socioeconomic development opportunities that offer the greatest potential in a region, using spatial planning and analysis.
Imagine a mining community that embraces innovation and benefits from the rich mineral endowment beneath its feet, while new economic activities such as 3D printing, agri-business opportunities like biofuels or game ranching begin to develop to build on mining’s contribution.
In essence, long-term economic prosperity is achieved on the back of mining, but not entirely reliant on mining. This is a safer and more sustainable model and one that we encourage everyone to embrace.
The substance of the model is important, but the process is critical to its success.
We can only do this in collaboration with regional and municipal governments, other mining companies and industries, non-governmental organisations and our communities – each bringing their own expertise, commitment and resources.
It requires deep partnership and trust to help us map out a developmental path for mining communities to navigate this evolution in a sustainable way.
At Anglo American, we see the transition to modern, sustainable mining both as a necessity and as an opportunity to realise.
South Africa cannot afford to be left behind. To thrive, we must all embrace innovation. Doing so will unlock long-term opportunities for this great nation and all her people.
. Anik Michaud is group director of corporate relations at Anglo American plc.