Research institute to boost South Africa’s mining sector

The mining sector employs a million people in South Africa Copyright: Flickr/United Nations Photos

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[CAPE TOWN] In a move to halt the decline in human capital within its mining sector and to deepen mining research, South Africa has established the country’s first institute dedicated exclusively to the industry.   

The Wits Mining Research Institute (WMRI), launched in September at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, will seek to advance mining research as an important component of economic growth.

It also hopes to boost the number of postgraduates choosing to study mining, by organising high-level skills training in key areas, including: the investigation of new methods for mining and exploration; mining policy; health and safety; environmental impacts; and community issues.

Nielen Van Der Merwe, WMRI’s interim director, told SciDev.Net that the South African mining sector was currently beset by a lack of human capacity and research, coupled with inadequate training for the next generation of researchers.

But he added he was confident the new institute would reverse the recent decline, in part by embedding an interdisciplinary approach.

"The institute will stimulate collaboration between [diverse] disciplines", from law and management to migration, economics and healthcare,  Van Der Merwe said.

South Africa has the world’s largest non-energy mineral reserves, estimated at US$2.5 trillion. [1]

According to the government’s Chamber of Mines, the mining industry creates a million jobs, half directly and half indirectly, and is the third largest industry in terms of economic output after agriculture and industrial manufacturing.

However, it is also a sector beset by controversy and tensions over working conditions and social inequity. The recent killings of mineworkers at Marikana, near Pretoria, and the ongoing contention surrounding miners’ rights, have thrown many of these issues into the spotlight.

According to Shirona Patel, a Witwatersrand University’s spokesperson, the institution carried out considerable research into mining from the 1960s to the 1980s.

But in the 1990s, mining research was taken over by the governmental Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and since then little research has been done, Patel said. WMRI is now "restarting the process", she said.

Van Der Merwe agreed: "Sadly, for perhaps the last two decades, our coordinated mining research effort has all but collapsed and we have lost our leadership position".

Francis Petersen, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Cape Town, said the institute must claim back South Africa’s competitive edge in mining research and fill "the gap is on the research and technology side".

South Africa’s minister for mineral resources, Susan Shabangu, said she hoped the new institute would engage her department and other stakeholders — including the Mine Health and Safety Council — on research and development, and the innovation agenda on health and safety.

The institute should aspire to become a centre of excellence for mine health and safety, she said.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub­-Saharan Africa desk.