This Mail & Guardian webinar was sponsored by Sibanye-Stillwater. It featured as speakers Neal Froneman, Chief Executive Officer, Sibanye-Stillwater; Dawie Mostert, Executive Vice-President: Organisational Growth; Keith Stead, SVP HRD Technical Academy, Sibanye-Stillwater; Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg; and Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of the Witwatersrand. It was facilitated by Cathy Mohlahlana, Senior News Anchor, Newzroom Afrika.
Mining is becoming more digital by the day. New technologies allow mining companies to access minerals and metals they were unable to previously, with greater efficiency and with less harm to the environment. To stay abreast of this, research and development is necessary and more training is required; thus, partnerships between mining companies and universities are essential, such as the well-established ones between Sibanye-Stillwater and Wits and the University of Johannesburg. The advent of digital also allows more women and people with disabilities to enter the mining field.
The webinar was introduced by Cathy Mohlahlana, who outlined how the online seminar would work. Keith Stead spoke first; he said today’s “safety moment” is a sad one, as they need to pay homage to Shadrack Bessit, a leader with the motto of “saving lives, saving jobs” who died of Covid-19 related complications. Sibanye-Stillwater aims to empower people with safe production, which means having the right people with the right qualifications who apply the correct measures for work safety. Safe production is the foremost consideration in all levels of production. Inclusivity is also vital, and an environment of involvement, respect and connection, where differing views and experiences are harnessed to create value. He introduced Neal Froneman and outlined how Sibanye-Stillwater broke away from Goldfields and became a leader in the field in under a decade through prudent acquisitions, which have increased its market value enormously.
Froneman said mining continues to drive South Africa’s economy and employment. The country is rich in mineral resources, although many will only be brought to the surface through changes in technology and methodology, so there is great reliance on technical staff and mining engineers, who must be provided by our universities. Innovation and research are vital to maintain safety and sustainability. The pandemic has emphasised the need to modernise mining through appropriate technology, which means skilled staff are at a premium. Sibanye-Stillwater has a long history of working together with the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and many alumni work at the company. A pipeline of young, qualified talent must be maintained, so investments into the two universities have been gladly made.
Sibanye–Stillwater will be renewing the company’s anchor sponsorship agreements between itself and the Johannesburg and Witwatersrand Universities. Sibanye-Stillwater and Wits Mining Institute’s (WMI) Digital Mining Laboratory (DigiMine) was launched in 2018. DigiMine is a 21st-century state-of-the-art mining laboratory and postgraduate research entity. The laboratory’s aim is to make mining safer and more sustainable using digital technologies. On 26 January 2020, Sibanye-Stillwater is providing DigiMine with an additional R16.5-million in funding annually from 2019 to 2021, over and above an original commitment to the project. In total, R75-million has been donated.
- The initial sponsorships commenced in 2014, for a duration of three years to the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg, to the combined value of R25-million (R12.5-million per institution).
- The sponsorships were renewed in 2017 for a duration of three year to the combined value of R30-million (R15-million per institution).
- For the period 2019 to 2022 a further sponsorship agreement over and above the anchor agreements of R10-million per annum was entered into with the University of the Witwatersrand, funding the DigiMine Research Projects.
- In 2021 the sponsorships were again renewed, for a further three-year period, to the value of R33-million (R16.5-million per institution).
This will help train graduates for mining, boost research and assist with broader university projects. Sibanye-Stillwater has also since 2013 made donations to the Mining Education Trust Fund, which enables universities to attract and retain the best possible teaching talent. In addition, Sibanye-Stillwater has provided funding for many bursaries, grants and internships.
The Women in Mining initiative aims to enhance the representation and development of women at all levels in the organisation; the target is to have 30% women representation in Sibanye-Stillwater by 2025. Highly qualified female graduates are needed as role models — over 30% of Sibanye-Stillwater bursary graduates in 2020 were female — a promising start. Attracting and retaining women in the mining industry is a complex issue, and a lot of work is going into understanding the barriers restraining their entry at the moment. To change the demographic will require co-operation with Sibanye-Stillwater’s partner institutions, who will need to explore how to attract women into more technical fields and what incentives must be provided.
Mohlahlana then fielded some remarks from the audience, many of which praised Sibanye-Stillwater for its support for universities. She then asked Froneman why research is so vital for mining these days. He replied that deep level mines are very complicated, and managing them is not easy, in terms of safety and sustainability. Adopting new technology creates greater safety and yields maximum value, with the least destruction for the environment. If value is not created, benefits for the wider community such as bursary funding are not possible. “It’s all about efficiency and using as little energy as possible. The mining industry thinks in terms of decades, not the short term.”
Professor Tshilidzi Marwala pointed out that mining creates about 8% of South Africa’s GDP and accounts for 20% of investment. It is thus a very important industry, and one that requires much modernisation. Mining is hard: technologies that work above ground don’t always work underground. Robots that work underground, for instance, are more complex than the ones above ground. Research and development (R&D) is therefore always needed. Professor Zeblon Vilakazi quoted a Citibank report done 10 years ago that said South Africa’s mineral wealth reserves are worth about R2-trillion. Research is required to find and unlock those reserves in the most efficient way, and add value to them. “Exploring underground is like exploring the seas or the heavens; it’s a complex affair, especially if you add robotics.”
There are many concerns about robots taking away jobs, especially on the part of employees, said Froneman, but digitisation does create new industries and jobs, and this creates more safety and efficiency. If we don’t go down this path, we will lose our competitiveness as a country, and many reserves cannot be accessed with new technology.
Dawie Mostert said to get the transition correct, there must be a balance created between the digital world and people. People are Sibanye-Stillwater’s most important asset; employees must become adapted and upskilled to 4IR and 5IR so that they can “dance with technology”. It is vital to have the right partnerships to stay abreast, such as the ones that exist between Sibanye-Stillwater, Wits and UJ.
Vilakazi pointed out that about 100 years ago, people must have been equally terrified by the technological changes such as cars that were happening then. It is how we harness technologies that is important, and we have to bring as many people onboard for this. Flexibility and lifelong learning are essential in this regard. Marwala said some jobs will disappear; others will change, reskilling will be necessary; and new jobs will emerge. Students must learn and be taught to work with digital technologies, such as AI and robotics.
Mostert said we must adopt an approach of maximum possibility, and have a very open mindset; it is a very exciting journey. We all want to upgrade our phones, and we need to bring that excitement into the workplace. Froneman pointed out that this R&D about new technology is not the core function of a mining company: the universities Sibanye-Stillwater supports are far better suited to doing this.
Marwala said that UJ used Sibanye-Stillwater’s funds to establish a virtual reality training simulator to support the development of 21st-century mining graduates, by giving them a real-world experience without the need to go to a mine; this enables work-integrated learning. Vilakazi said that he appreciates the foresight that Sibanye-Stillwater demonstrated to fund his university for this R&D; he quoted figures of students who had graduated with doctorates, and how university research and the DigiMine has improved efficiency and safety at mines.
Froneman fielded a question about gender parity in mining, and said there is still a long way to go. Targets have been set at Sibanye-Stillwater to improve gender equality, and there is a steady stream of more women graduates with the requisite degrees. Digitisation will make it easier for women to enter mining, as fewer will be required to go underground, and physical strength is not such a large factor, said Vilakazi, who pointed out that there are far more women graduates today than there were 30 years ago. Marwala said that with the investment in academics, the percentage of women in the industry should go up to 40% soon.
An audience delegate asked if evaluation measures are taken for their graduate programmes? Mostert said yes, and efforts are being made to determine what the impact is on the R&D being undertaken, and if it aligns with what the industry needs.
The next question was: how has Covid-19 sped up the need for digitisation and R&D? Froneman said there is absolutely a need for more R&D in this regard, to stabilise the industry, which has been hit heavily. He said Sibanye-Stillwater has adopted to being a digital-first organisation, which has kept them going during the lockdown, for instance with virtual meetings, and they are now less prone to disruptions such as Covid-19. “I am now being told by AI what’s coming up in meetings and what’s on the agenda, and it’s quite incredible,” said Froneman. Marwala said a lot of thought has gone into integrating 4IR with mining; mining must be given its own spectrum, on the same lines that MTN has its own. This is due to the amount of information that is required, and it will improve efficiencies in the mining industry.
The next question addressed the issue of remote mining, which Froneman answered. He said in the near future mining will not require physical strength, as digital will take over, enabling women and people with disabilities to work in such mines. There are already open-cast mines that are completely digital and run remotely, and with the right partners this will soon be a reality in South Africa.
With the introduction of 4IR, is there training offered in this to general underground workers? Mostert said yes, the training approach has been revisited; augmented and virtual reality training is now part of the schedule. A significant amount of new technology has been incorporated, the cadet programme has changed, and how the company approaches the communities it works with. Stead said augmented reality has been incorporated into training, for instance with instructions appearing on the side of your glasses while you work; Sibanye-Stillwater is also using a lot more visual aids. The way that learning takes place has altered, and an app is being developed for remote learning.
A question was asked about risk assessment and minimal failures of equipment, in the light of power failures? Scheduled maintenance of key infrastructure is very important, said Marwala, such as regularly replacing cables for lifts. AI is enabling “predictive” maintenance, so that equipment only needs to be replaced when necessary, which extends the lifetimes of certain equipment. Froneman said managing risk is very high on the agenda and that the company makes use of a risk register. Battery backups are being put in place to minimise power disruptions, and environmental issues are becoming more important in the way that Sibanye-Stillwater operates.
The last question regarded 4IR upskilling at TVET colleges and how Sibanye-Stillwater can help them. Mostert said alignment is crucial in this regard: are the colleges producing graduates with the skills that mining companies actually require? Regular engagement between all the parties concerned must take place to ensure this occurs. Vilakazi said TVET colleges must be reimagined and repurposed as technical training schools for industries such as mining. The industrial miracle that took place in Germany and Japan after the war happened because of technical training colleges; the same must happen now with digital mining.
Marwala added that the depth of technical knowhow has gone down in TVET colleges; the industrial sector must work with these colleges, and engineers must be appointed from companies such as Sibanye-Stillwater to spread their knowledge, so that students can obtain the necessary practical knowledge. Froneman said a holistic approach is necessary that requires support from all sectors, including artisans and engineers, to prepare workers for the future. It will take clear political will to achieve this goal, Vilakazi pointed out.
Mostert ended the webinar by thanking everyone who took part, including the students who had asked questions, and reiterated the importance of Sibanye–Stillwater renewing its anchor sponsorship agreements with the Johannesburg and Witwatersrand Universities.