The case for the Wits Mining Institute to support the South African mining sector expanding into Africa
Through committed research, development and innovation, the South African mining industry can reassert itself as a global leader in mining and as a gateway into African mining.
This will require technological advancement, allowing for mining that causes no harm to people or the environment, yet remaining globally competitive. The negative trend on mining’s contribution at the start of the 21st Century can be turned around, but only if the industry first, with government support, moves its 20th century mines and skills into the 21st century to synchronize with a global reality and second, we innovate by bringing our vast resources buried at depth beyond the limits of current knowledge, to book. As demand for mineral production grows, resources become depleted. Whilst part of this problem may be addressed by the development of new technologies to locate and extract mineral resources, and by improved recycling of materials, the fact remains that exploration for new resources will need to accelerate in the coming decades. Africa is resource-rich in terms of people and minerals. When we combine people and natural resource for benefit, prosperity is the outcome. This is Africa’s opportunity.
However, the leading position that South Africa once held in mining research has declined in recent decades. Over the past 30 years, research has declined considerably with a corresponding growth in research facilities, funding support and the number of researchers in other countries, notably Australia and Canada. Australia has ten institutions dedicated to mining research and seven universities offering mining degrees with many South Africans applying their skills internationally because local demand for their skills almost evaporated over this time. South Africa now has four universities with accredited mining programs and the number of mining researchers in the field of mining in South Africa has declined from an estimated 800 in the 1980s to less than 50, which number includes academics and many of them are already retired or close to retirement. The situation is therefore desperate – not only in terms of research output, but also in terms of access to established researchers. To turn this around and to re-establish research in South Africa, we should first, develop a new generation of mining researchers possessing the 21st century skills and second, identify research undertaken elsewhere and do the required adaptation to make international technologies suitable for the unique geographic, geological and sociological conditions of Africa. The only way the South African mining industry can reassert itself as a global leader is to revive research, development and innovation, underpinned by technological advancement, allowing for mining that causes no harm to people or the environment, yet remaining globally competitive. The capacity for innovation relates directly to the number of researchers and the budget for R&D. Figure 1 illustrates that South Africa lags on both and it is likely to be worse for the mature mining sector. Emeritus Professor Phillips3 estimates that the Company R&D for coal mining in South Africa is only 0.01% of annual coal revenue.
Figure 1: The Capacity to innovate
Source: Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Transforming World Atlas, March 2016
 Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Transforming World Atlas, 02 March 2016, accessed on 21/09/2016 from http://www.bofaml.com/content/dam/boamlimages/documents/articles/ID16-305/bofaml_transforming_world_atlas_2nd_edition.pdf