Mining Indaba 2014 – Sunday 2 February 2014

Mining Indaba 2014 – What does it mean for the Western Limb?

Sunday 2 February 2014

Belonging to the mountain

I arrived last night at my friend’s house, in the Southern Suburb of Oranjezicht.  From De Waal Drive I wind my way up to his house in my little rented Chevrolet, up to the streets closest to the top of Table Mountain.  People are always talking about the attraction of the “the Maohwntin” in Cape Town in a joking, gently self-mocking way.  Driving up winding roads lined by Century-old houses and big green trees, I feel the attraction.  I feel happy, peaceful, grounded.  I wonder if it’s a feeling that wears off, but I doubt it.  I feel it every time I am here.  It’s so big and all-encompassing you can’t just turn it into wallpaper.  You are part of its scenery.

table mountain from kloof st

Belonging to the mine

In many ways, in a proper little mining town, you are also part of its scenery.  I am not talking about your Rustenburgs and Randfonteins and Virginias, where town and mine are separate enough that you can just about forget that it would all probably be farmland where it not for mine-able ore bodies below.

I am talking about the proper little mining towns, your Amandelbults, your Swartklips and your Gravelottes.  These are towns where you belong to the mine.  It is the mine’s town and you drive through their security gates every time you are there. There is an unquestionably an atmosphere you feel in your body when you drive into a little mining town.  Except that, in a little mining town, you cannot rely on a massive, gorgeous mountain to reliably provide a background experience of happiness, peace and groundedness.   The atmosphere depends on the people in the mining town, and especially on the leadership.  The mine’s management, community and labour leaders make a difference.  And the atmosphere can change significantly with a change in leadership.

Wall mural

Mines are immense, institutional and hierarchical

This is one of several reasons why I believe that we can and will re-write the future of the Western Limb mining area.  Mines are huge, institutional, and hierarchical.  They have the immensity, if not the beauty, of Table Mountain. If they need roads, they build roads.  If they need rail capacity, they can build their own rail lines.  They build enormous ventilators that pump oxygen kilometers underground.  They build massive underground reservoirs.  If they need more houses, they build a suburb.

When mining companies make a strategic decision about a mine, tremendous resources are applied to carrying it out.  When it comes to sinking new shafts, or building a new refinery, that is obvious.  However, there are human, social and cultural concerns, where the breadth and depth of the financial, human and mechanical capital at the disposal of the mining companies has produced impressive positive changes.

Governments and trade unions are also centralized to a high degree and capable of marshalling impressive resources.  Communities are generally less so.  However, the Western Limb region is something of an exception in this regard.  Traditional Tswana communities here have strong with community decision-making structures through a kgosi or King and headmen.  These communities include the the Bakgathla ba ga Kgafela, the Bakubang ba Ratheo, the Bofokeng, the Bapo ba Mogala and the Bakwena ba Magopa.

In the Western Limb region, many of the key stakeholders share an interesting characteristic – there is a defined and identifiable person or group of people who are responsible for providing leadership and well-known structures in place to facilitate this.  And they have a lot of resources at their disposal.

Communities and mining

Mine safety: a cultural revolution

One of the areas where mining companies have used their size, and central management to good effect is in mine safety.   Some of the mining companies have decided, for many reasons, that they are no longer going to tolerate the accidents and fatalities that were previously considered normal on the mines.  Some mining groups have genuinely made this a central management priority.  They have created a vision, mission and strategy to improve mine safety.

One of the most successful of their strategies has been to inspire and educate all of their employees and contractors to be part of a safety culture.  They started by identifying a few simple, crucial messages that save lives and prevent accidents.   Then they drummed those messages over and over again until they became habits, habits that save people’s lives every day.   They have been tremendously resourceful and creative in going about causing this cultural shift.  Signs, manuals, mascots, awards, competitions, trophies, safety songs (heck safety choirs even), celebrity safety ambassadors, stories from victims of mine accidents on what it is like to live in a wheelchair, events, videos.  The mine’s senior management tackled what was not working on every front, from every angle they could get at it.  They stopped tolerating things being the way they were in the past.  They approached it with patience, resourcefulness, determination, a large budget and a wide mandate and high expectations from top management.  They inspired their workforce to be part of the solution.

Photo credit: Step it Up Productions

Photo credit: Step it Up Productions

The next cultural revolution

Immense size and central planning and standardization and predictability are essential to successful mining.  I believe that these characteristics can also be used to create thriving communities.  With a shared vision for what the community could be like, the mines can get their entire workforce on board.  You can have thousands of people all pulling every day for the same vision and mission.  When the vision is zero accidents, miners have shown that it’s possible.  I believe that if the vision is a thriving and empowered community, it is also possible.  How are we going to do this in the Western Limb? I think it will take spending a lot of time listening to communities to find out what is important to them and what they really care about, and empowering and enabling them to have that.

Photo credit: Eye Opening Productions

Photo credit: Eye Opening Productions

An interview with Peter Leon

I woke up to good news this morning.  Peter Leon, a Partner at Webber Wentzel and in whose team I was a candidate attorney, associate and senior associate, is available to do an interview with us on Monday.  A gap opened up in his schedule.  Western Limb is happy to fill it!

Peter Leon has decades of experience in the South African mining industry, and has been involved in many of the most pressing discussions between the key stakeholders about the future of the industry.  Recently, this includes being part of the MIGDETT consultative forum established by the Minister of Mineral Resources to improve the mining regulatory framework to make South Africa’s mines globally competitive.  Peter has lived and breathed the South African mining industry from Webbers’ Illovo Boulevard offices and prior to that, their Main Street offices in downtown Johannesburg.

He has become increasingly involved in initiatives that are aimed to ensure a fair mining regime that balances the interests of all stakeholders.  One of the most successful and widely known of these is the work he did for the Mining Law Section of the International Bar Association.  Peter and his team of international experts developed a Model Mineral Development Agreement (the MMDA), a pro forma agreement between government’s and mining companies.  The MMDA is designed to promote mineral extraction that has positive benefits for mining communities and the country’s citizenry.

This experience at the highest level globally, together with his knowledge of the politics, economics and law relating to the Western Limb mining region, make him a great person to speak to about what is possible for the Western Limb region.


The dispersed team: Phokeng, Pretoria, Johannesburg, London, Oxford, Dundee, Paris, Washington D.C.

Later today I am meeting my colleague Jonathan Veeran, also a Webber Wentzel Partner, as well as a Western Limb team member, a former colleague of mine and a current colleague of Peter’s at his hotel at the Cape Town Waterfront.   He flies in from Johannesburg tonight.

Jonathan and I have spoken about the Western Limb project for over a year, but we have not seen one another for almost two years, before I started it!  Indeed, many of the team members on the Western Limb project have never met in person before.  What we know of each other is based on what we hear on weekly Powwownow conference calls and read on e-mails.  We are in cities and towns around the world, including Phokeng, Johannesburg, and Pretoria in South Africa, London, and Oxford in England, Dundee in Scotland, Paris in France, and one member in Washington, D.C, in the US.  Four of our team of eleven will be in Cape Town, making it our biggest face-to-face meeting so far.

The fact that a dispersed (entirely unpaid) team can work together also gives me confidence for what we can achieve in the Western Limb.  Since 2006, I have fairly consistently worked with people in three continents in my career as an international arbitration lawyer on an almost daily basis.  I have still never met some people that I have worked with closely for over five years.  We have been pretty effective working this way.  The costs have been relatively modest apart from the few times we have had to all meet (and of course the high legal and other consultant billing rates).

The conference line, well managed, is hard to beat as a regular way of communicating.  Everyone can give their full attention to what is said, and has everything else they need, documents, information in front of them, or an e-mail away.

More is nog ‘n dag (Tomorrow is another day)

Tomorrow the 2014 Mining Indaba begins, and downtown Cape Town will be awash with many of the people who will determine the future of mining in Africa.  For better or worse.


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