CAPE TOWN – Without adequate innovation, research and development, the South African mining industry could see job losses of as much as 200 000 by 2025, according to vice president of the Chamber of Mines, Neal Froneman.
“Taking into account the multiplier effect (which includes the loss of jobs downstream and those dependent on the income), this could affect as many as two million people,” said Froneman, who was speaking at a briefing held by the Chamber of Mines on Wednesday.
Job losses in the mining sector have been a function of rising costs and lower productivity. South African mines have endured a trend of lower productivity for some years, but not for reasons one might think. “Our labour is working as hard as they ever have. Rather, the problem relates to the depth of our mines. In many cases, workers are traveling for as long as two hours to get to the stope face.”
South Africa’s mines are getting ever deeper. The country already has eight of the ten deepest shafts in the world, with AngloGold Ashanti’s impressive Mponeng mine more than four kilometers deep.
The technical expertise enabling this indicates that the industry is not as technologically challenged as it is perceived to be, Froneman said. “The engineering behind the logistics and utilities at that depth are quite incredible.”
Besides sinking shafts to this depth, the industry has learnt to work with seismicity, which means not being able to predict earthquakes so much as being able to mitigate the effects of them underground.
Then there is the engineering behind working with virgin rock at temperatures as high as 60 degrees Celsius, which has seen the construction of some of the world’s largest ice makers and water coolers.
“In addition, there have been exceptional improvements in safety,” Froneman said. Some of the developments that have made working environments safe at these depths include developing virtual training centres for employees, the use of drones to inspect blasting and installing roof bolts and netting at stope faces.
Productivity is a function of cost, output
Froneman believes the country has about 400 million tonnes of low-grade gold. By removing people from the workplace, the costs required to mine an area are lowered. For one, remote-controlled machines don’t require the same degree of ventilation and safety standards as people do.
“If we can extend the lives of our orebodies by lowering the cost of operating, we can unlock low-grade ore reserves. This would extend low-grade mines by 15 years,” Froneman said.
Further to that, by using machines, many of the stability pillars could be mined. These typically contain high-grade ore-bearing reefs that couldn’t be touched as they are fundamental to keeping the underground structure intact. By the chamber’s estimates, there are as much as 160 million tonnes of high-grade support pillars available to be tapped in South Africa’s gold mines.
To accelerate the development and adoption of technology, the industry, together with government, has revitalised the COMRO (Chamber of Mines Research Organisation) campus in Richmond (previously designated as a mining innovation precinct) following Operation Phakisa.
“While a number of individual products have been developed by private companies, mining companies and manufacturers, an integrated suite of locally-manufactured products with real-time monitoring and control are needed.”
Froneman said that the industry has set a milestone for the implementation of a cyclical drill and blast suite of equipment that mechanises all activities in the stoping and development cycle, including remotely-operated equipment.