To ensure a level playing field across the South African mining sector, better guidelines need to be developed to ensure the implementation of sustainable ‘social transitioning’ after mine closure, in addition to the requirements of social and labour plans (SLPs) and Mining Charter III, says mining consultancy SRK Consulting South Africa.
General guidelines for social transitioning need to be developed by the industry regulator or the mining industry or through collaboration between these stakeholders to address the limited technical information available on social transitioning.
“These guidelines could hopefully stimulate dialogue on the principles of the social transition process and enable stakeholders, such as government, communities and developers, to contribute to a more holistic understanding of the resource and capacity requirements,” says SRK Consulting senior social scientist Jessica Edwards.
She delivered a paper, coauthored by SRK Consulting senior environmental scientist Ashleigh Maritz, in September, at the thirteenth International Mine Closure Conference (Mine Closure 2019), in Australia.
A national framework would enable individual mining companies to develop their own specific social transition plans that address the specific needs of their project and associated communities, she tells Mining Weekly.
“General guidelines could require mining companies to develop a good understanding of their host communities in terms of their needs, vulnerabilities and assets. A solid grasp of these baseline factors is critical in developing strategies towards social transition.”
The regulator could also support social aspects of closure by driving the development of indicators and insisting on evidence of sustainable social transition arrangements before a closure certificate is issued, Edwards advances.
Historically, mining companies have not always had a firm grasp of the dynamic nature of the social environment, which has led to a slow response from mines in dealing with new challenges, such as communities demanding a greater share of an operation’s benefits, notes Edwards.
“Mine closure has generally been perceived as a technical or engineering element in the life cycle of a mine. Therefore, the knowledge base [associated with] the physical aspects of mine closure is significantly more developed than the social aspects.”
Initially, the focus was on the development of more rigorous health and safety standards and relevant legislation, after which attention shifted to protecting the environment and developing supportive legislation.
But there is a growing recognition of the importance of social closure considerations, says Johannesburg-based socioeconomic and environmental consulting firm 3 Circle Consulting MD Mariam January in a research paper on the social aspects of mine closure planning at gold mining company Gold Fields’ South Deep mine, in South Africa.
Coauthored by the International University of Japan’s Professor Hyunkoo Lee, the paper, which was also presented at Mine Closure 2019, notes that South Deep, with its 75-year life-of-mine, faces increased social risks and liabilities because of its proximity to impoverished host communities and other ageing mines.
January notes that the social closure component of South Deep’s SLP is written in a way that suggests that the detailed closure plan will likely be finalised only once the company enters the care-and-maintenance phase.
“By that time, it is too late, as they may have already created significant social and economic liabilities,” she states, noting, however, that social closure has gained far greater prominence within the company, owing to the closure of precious metals mining company Sibanye-Stillwater’s Cooke mine, also in Gauteng.
In the past ten years, considerable attention has been placed on the impact mining has on mines’ broader social licence to operate, explains Edwards.
In South Africa, mining companies tend to address social impacts only when there is a risk of either losing their social licence to operate or reputational damage arising from community resistance, she tells Mining Weekly.
South Deep complies with all its legislative requirements and, in terms of mine closure planning, it has met best practice standards by developing a detailed closure plan early in the operational phase, emphasises January.
However, her research paper notes that, going forward, South Deep will consider social closure in the selection of local economic development projects.
Although the gold mine’s opportunity lies in its long life-of-mine, it also poses a real risk of complacency, she says.
Social Transitioning Drivers
Social aspects are often nontangible and difficult to measure, says Edwards, highlighting the complexity of social dynamics and the differing requirements and expectations of each affected community, in addition to community structures being in flux.
“Companies that seek to develop a repu- tation for being socially responsible are certainly more willing to understand and address the social impacts of their operations, but they are still under no legal obligation to do so.”
There are no local legal requirements to undertake social impact assessments for the development of mining projects, and social transition aspects that aid sustainable community development are not addressed by the guidelines and legislation on the financial provisioning for mine closure and rehabilitation, says Edwards.
A mine’s SLP commitments under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Develop- ment Act typically include the support of sustainable income-generating projects, enterprise development, the provision of portable skills training and the establishment of a future forum to manage downscaling and retrenchment.
However, Edwards points out, there is no detailed explanation of what exactly is required from the mining industry for social transition after mine closure.
“This may be due to the difficulty of prescribing just one approach, as each case is different and the dynamics associated with people and communities are very complicated.”
Adequate social transitioning to closure entails planning for sustainability beyond the life-of-mine, so that the mine leaves a lasting positive legacy, says Edwards.
“Successful social transitioning should result in sustainable economic opportunities for the region once mining has stopped.”
Such transitioning also demands collaboration between local government and partners, such as community-based organisations, and the development of their capacity to coproduce sustainable social and physical infrastructure, as well as other initiatives.
Edwards highlights good examples of international social transition projects in the UK, the US and Germany, but notes that applying these examples to developing countries with high unemployment rates, inequality and widespread poverty would require lateral thinking, robust partnerships and concerted long-term efforts by all stakeholders.
Mining companies should immediately start taking steps to ensure the adequate social closure of mining operations, owing to social transition strategies requiring long lead times, she says, adding that, too often, the approach to closure planning is to address the issue in the last few years of a mine’s life.
“At that stage, however, there are seldom enough resources in terms of finance, time and personnel to adequately address closure objectives. Ideally, the strategy should be integrated into the conceptual closure planning process for the mine.”
However, the consideration of social aspects at all phases of a mine’s life cycle is difficult, as it competes with the numerous existing challenges associated with mine closure, Edwards highlights.
January adds that the mindset of all stakeholders in relation to mine closure has to change to adequately plan for and implement social closure.
“Mine closure is not the responsibility of the mine alone, as many stakeholders have to be involved in the planning and implementation thereof.”
However, given the power, wealth and resources wielded by mining companies, January highlights their responsibility to be influencers and facilitators in planning for life after the mine ceases operating.
Initially, South Africa should strive to improve awareness of social transition principles and potential approaches, states Edwards.
“We should develop realistic commitments beyond the current SLP and Mining Charter III requirements, and then take incremental steps towards a more sustainable future.”
Coproduction is noted in Edwards and Maritz’s published paper as a vital approach that South African mining companies need to embrace in developing their social transitioning strategies.
They believe that coproduction can help local governments and host communities become more resilient as they move away from a predominantly mining-led economy, as well as lead to the sustainable handover of social obligations and other infrastructure upon mine closure, reducing a mine’s liabilities and its reputational risk.
Edwards says this is especially important with the increasingly stringent SLP and Mining Charter III requirements aimed at benefiting employees, suppliers and communities.
A key part of managing downscaling is the formation of a ‘future forum’, in accordance with Section 46d of the SLP guidelines, states January.
In terms of South Deep’s future forum, she says it seems as if it were established solely for compliance reasons, as there are no representatives from the community or local institutions, rendering it ineffective to deal with any social mine closure issues other than those involving employees.
January says many of South Deep’s mineworkers come from other regions and will likely leave the area once mining stops, unlike community members, including vulnerable groups, local suppliers and the local munici- pality.
However, she acknowledges that it will not necessarily be easy to involve the various stakeholders, such as local communities, businesses and government, owing to differing interests.
To help develop a resilient host community, mining companies need to participate in proactive collaboration with partners to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and should avoid creating a dependence on mining in the host community where they have the opportunity, stresses Edwards.
“This can be done by investing in infrastructure, sustainable development projects, enterprise generation and skills development to provide a host community with the capacity to operate independently of the mine.”
Edwards points out that enterprise development opportunities provided through procurement contracts with mines, for example, should be seen as a stepping stone to wider markets, rather than the end goal.
As social transitioning is a relatively new concept that is gaining traction, owing to its links to mines’ social licence to operate, there are still insufficient skills from a mining company and regulator perspective to address these challenges, she says, highlighting that some mines still find it difficult to comply with the minimum requirement of submitting their SLPs every five years, but enforcement is also not always consistent.