JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – Advancing South Africa’s ambitions of evolving from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) on Thursday launched a specialised academic institute that will focus on holistic research into the country’s profusion of mineral resources and look to stimulate the creation of a cohort of skilled South African economic geologists.
The Centre of Excellence (CoE) for Integrated Minerals and Energy Resource Analysis (Cimera) would be hosted by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and would see the collaboration of South African economic geology research units the Palaeoproterozoic Mineralisation Centre, at UJ, and the Economic Geology Research Institute, at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
This was the fifth DST-NRF CoE to be launched this month, following the official opening of four other research units focusing on food security, scientometrics and science, technology and innovation policy, mathematical and statistical sciences, and human development respectively.
The launch of Cimera, which formed part of government’s larger research intensification drive, brought the total number of CoEs to 14 nationwide.
The unit’s chief research objective would be to develop an integrated understanding of some of the country’s major and minor mineral and fossil energy resources and their geometallurgical characteristics.
This was aimed at ensuring the sustainable extraction of resources, while preventing and mitigating negative environmental effects.
The centre would place particular emphasis on integrating academic research with strategic applications in wealth generation and human resource development, weaving in an understanding of the socioeconomic implications of local mining activities – not only in South Africa but also elsewhere on the continent.
It would also aim to develop skilled economic geologists through postgraduate research studies on mineral and energy resources, with a particular, although not exclusive, focus on Africa.
The centre’s work on the continent would become more relevant as Africa moved into an era where the demand for the exploitation of its larger bulk commodity resources, such as iron, manganese and bauxite was rising, while the knowledge to ensure the long-term viability of this extraction was lacking.
Commenting at the launch of the centre, Cimera director Professor Nic Beukes described the CoE’s eight key research areas as the metallogenesis of early earth mineral systems, South Africa’s three superlative mineral resources, fossil energy resources of sedimentary basins, small-scale mining operations in Africa, critical metals of the future, new bulk mineral resource developments in Africa, environmental and medical geology, and public awareness and education.
“I also cannot overemphasise that the main focus of the centre is research and the training of students,” he noted.
The UJ lecturer also underlined the critical role of industry in the achievement of the research unit’s objectives.
“If we want to do geological research in South Africa, we are totally dependent on the industry to allow us access to [its] mines, as everything is getting deeper and we've done most of our research on the surface.
“Without industry partners, we won’t be able to access underground mines and study drill core [samples]. We often struggle with the limitation of confidentiality agreements, but we are hoping that our research will be of benefit to the mining houses themselves. If you do good work and if the work is of value, people will allow you to work on their deposits,” Beukes said.
NRF CEO Dr Albert van Jaarsveld added at the launch of the centre that the foundation was starting to see the results of a long-term “sweep” of investment into research through the overarching CoE programme.
“The objective of this programme is to grow a well-developed, globally competitive knowledge base [particularly in this] sector of the economy to develop critical mass and enhance our international competitiveness in strategic industries,” he said.
Van Jaarsveld further emphasised the importance of collaborating with various educational institutions, which would be in evidence at Cimera.
“This is precisely what we want to do – break down institutional barriers and allow collaboration across universities, creating opportunities to enable students to move from one institution to the other and enhancing knowledge sharing,” he commented.
While UJ and Wits were the primary partners of the centre, Cimera would also collaborate with Stellenbosch University, the University of Fort Hare, the University of Pretoria, Rhodes University and the University of Venda, all of which offered specialised areas of focus in mineral and mining research.
Science and Technology Deputy Minister Michael Masutha added on Thursday that no industry remained more closely linked to South Africa’s economic psyche than the mining and minerals sector, which had defined the country’s social and economic landscape since the 1800s.
He further challenged the new CoE to “work hard” to build a representative cohort of South African researchers.
“I challenge Cimera to lead by example in this regard. This is particularly important because the mining industry has for so long been seen as an industry that exploits black workers. In fact, most of the backbreaking jobs on the mines are still done by black men and most of the mid- and top-level jobs are held by white men.
“Encouraging black people and women to enter research careers in this area would be a good start towards a more equitable situation,” he remarked.