Mining Mechanisation – Ten Years On

Ten years ago saw the successful introduction of a low profile electro-hydraulic mechanised drill rig, Sandvik’s Axera LP Drill, specifically designed for application in South African narrow reef hard rock mining. This completed the process of mechanising chrome mining in South Africa’s Bushveld complex, a programme that started in 1985 with the introduction of the first Load Haul Dumpers on chrome mines in Rustenburg. The Axera LP Drill became one of the most commercially successful machines introduced in the South African mining industry.

By 2005, South Africans chrome mines were producing 70% of total ore output of 700k tons per month, utilising machines. Technically this revolution, after previous unsuccessful attempts at mechanisation was spectacular and had a major impact on the successful implementation of mechanised mining in the platinum industry, so much so, that the total tonnage derived from mechanised mining in platinum mines has grown from zero in 1990 to 1.5 million tons per month by 2008. Production costs of mechanised chrome ore have become very competitive and it is now the preferred production method, it is no coincidence that the some of the cheapest platinum producers, Aquarius and Mototolo, are also mechanised. Add to the benefits mentioned the favourable safety impact of mechanised mining and the choice seems very obvious and straightforward and the visionaries who single-mindedly promoted and implemented mechanisation may be forgiven for feeling smug when looking at their achievements.

Taking a more holistic and detached view of the unfolding process, it is easy to question the astuteness with which our heroes set about the task of replacing men with machines in South African mines. With the current, unacceptably high levels of unemployment in the country, the wisdom of mechanisation in mines must be considered along other socio-economic factors that drive employment, wealth creation and other factors creating value to society. Mining, along with agriculture and manufacturing remains one of the biggest employers in South Africa and anything that has a negative effect on employment opportunities will, quite rightly, be questioned. Fortunately, the visionaries responsible for mechanisation do not have to feel alone in their guilt, government policy and trade unions did more than their fair share of job destruction and contributed more to the destruction of jobs. Unfortunately they wrap their contribution in righteous packages, wrapped up as “Rights of the oppressed and exploited worker” and “Transformation of an unfair society”, giving them the moral right to destroy jobs.

In most normal market driven economies, the move from man to machine follows a set route. The typical road map starts with an oversupply of labour, manually producing products of value. As production increases, unemployment drops, wages goes up resulting in thinner margins and the search for more efficient production methods, inevitably machines. Skills improve to suit the machines and the cycle repeats. In the case of socially engineered economies, especially the less sophisticated ones like South Africa, machines can enter the production process for very different, and often wrong, reasons.

The politically correct motivation for machanisation of South African mines has been improved safety, decent jobs, up-skilling of employees improved salaries the loss of traditional skills because of HIV/Aids and the low-esteem in which the mining industry is held, globally and especially in South Africa, as an employer. I often think people consider mining as a small step ahead of the noble pursuit of sewer engineering. Truth however is, despite the negative perceptions of mining, perpetuated by the ANC Alliance, and their obsession with so called “decent and meaningful” jobs, millions are still prepared to work in mines for market driven wages, a view reinforced by the recent exposure of the extent of illegal mining activities in defunct mines.

It is however not a coincidence that the mechanisation  initiatives in the South African mining industry coincided with the liberalisation of labour law and the rise of black trade unionism on the mines. That chrome mines, despite their relatively low profitability, became leaders in mechanisation is also no coincidence. Chrome mines were always beset by highly volatile markets and wildly oscillating price curves, with the commensurate fluctuation of labour requirements. They recognised the potential opportunity proffered by mechanisation to effectively counter the potential crippling cost of retrenchments and disruption associated with it. Power of machines meant less power to radical unions. Higher skilled people not only meant higher pay, but also higher productivity and less hidden cost associated with a large lowly skilled but powerful workforce. The combination of out-of-control input cost, driven largely by the labour component, unreliable output levels and the physical threat to life and property, posed by militant and highly politicised trade unions, made for a compelling argument in favour of mechanised operations.

Government policy and trade unions must accept a large proportion of causal blame for this economic anomaly. By turning an industry, which should be the backbone of our economy, into a pariah industry, stigmatising it as an “enemy of the people” on par with the apartheid regime and the National party, was irresponsible and devoid of truth and reason, but possibly understandable. It is unforgivable for union leaders and people in government to persist with the perpetuation of that myth at this point of our history, thus continuing the fostering of distrust. To suggest that mining companies are singularly obsessed with the exploitation of workers borders on economic “hate-speech”. The single-minded objective to create a protected competition-free workplace at any cost cannot be tolerated any longer. As long as these “heroes of the poor”, with the active support of government, persists with this madness, jobs will be destroyed and poverty will increase.

It is estimated that the mechanisation of chrome and platinum mines resulted in the loss of at least five thousand conventional jobs in the last eight years. This loss in jobs could have been bigger, had it not been for the slow rate of skills development. The lack of adequate skills has been the single-most critical constraint in the rapid advance of low-profile mechanised mining.

In the mean time, initiatives to turn resources into profit will drive the innovators to find solutions. As things stand, the mechanisation of ultra low, flat dipping, ore-bodies are well advanced and requires skill development and fine tuning before it will inevitably, become the stoping method of choice in platinum mines. Continues Rock Cutting is far advanced and current unrealistic wage demands puts a smile on the faces of the pioneers of this groundbreaking, pardon the pun, technology.

To correct the situation whilst creating a competitive business environment a change in attitude by stakeholders are required. I am not advocating a free-for-all attitude bur rather a joint strategic approach focused on realistic market related wages and the best mining techniques, taking in consideration technical aspects, sound business principles and socioeconomic requirements.  To survive in a competitive world we need to be competitive and smart, face up and understand mistakes, and as stakeholders commit to elevating the South African mining industry to global leadership.

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