Mechanising mines in South Africa a double-edged sword

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“I think if you’re going to follow that line of thought of mechanisation, this assumption that South Africa hasn’t mechanised is totally incorrect. If you consider different mining operations, coal mining for instance, is extensively mechanised, very productive. Some of the mining machines operating in South Africa are producing and have been producing record outputs, so that’s one area,” Rod Pickering from the Witwatersrand Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems told CNBC Africa on Friday.

“All the surface mining that you see in South Africa is extensively mechanised. Then we come to the area which is not mechanised, which is primarily the very narrow hard rock mines, and these are typically the gold, platinum and chrome, if we think about those, and we see what’s happened in the last 10 years, in about 2000 we were looking at about 4 million tonnes a year produced from mechanised mines. In the last 10 years, though the introduction of appropriate technology and big changes in the way people are working, we’ve seen that figure go up to about 45 million tonnes.”

Mechanising mine has also been seen as a strong solution to creating a steady stream of revenue and could cut significant costs for mining companies, one of which would be through worker retrenchments. Job losses, however, could have a major impact on the country’s unemployment percentage and spark fresh labour sector disputes.

Because of the poor performance of global gold and platinum markets, mining company Anglo American Platinum has proposed plans to reduce 14,000 jobs in South Africa and Sibanye Gold is considering the loss of 1600 jobs.

 “Fortunately we have only one mine in South Africa and it’s mechanised. We don’t have to deal now with the challenges that we used to deal with in terms of the narrow reef,” said Gold Fields CEO Nick Holland.

 “We have to embrace technology and the way that we’re going to evolve in this industry is we are going to be more technology focused in the future. That is going to mean that we’re going to have less people doing the grunt work. If you look at the youngsters in five years’ time and you employ them and expect them to kneel over a rock face and hold a drill rig, forget it.”

Pickering added that mine mechanisation would be a toss-up between having mine workers continue to work in life-threatening situations and for little pay, or whether mining companies would rather have a safer working and mechanised environment for higher pay, and where the opportunity to develop new skills is increased.