South Africa coronavirus covid-19

The mining industry was one of the first industries in South Africa to be permitted to resume activities during the lockdown (and in some instances did not even fully shut down at all). But where to from here now that restrictions have been fully lifted?

Any prediction of the industry’s future must inevitably consider the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic globally, but must also consider what transpired over the past quarter of a century since the dawn of our democracy.

In the mid to late 1990’s, mining was controlled by approximately seven large mining groups.  They operated like mini-governments and had large service departments, including research and development budgets.  The re-entry of South Africa’s mining industry into the global economy has contributed to the fundamental restructuring of the old “mining house” system as doors opened to international investment and movement of currencies relaxed.

Over the past 25 years, we have seen a new mineral law dispensation where the old Roman-Dutch law of mineral ownership was replaced with governmental custodianship. This was radical, but was needed to wrestle the economic power away from the mining houses and enable junior minors to enter the industry. 

Mining operations have been deconcentrated through various spin offs to smaller operators.  This, coupled with the opening up of new mining right applications post the deconcentrating of mineral rights, have brought many entrants into the mining industry.

The development of a social and labour responsibility mindset where mines acknowledge their licence to operate within host communities and focus on leaving a sustainable legacy once the life of mine comes to an end.

The Covid-19 pandemic may prove to be the ultimate disruptor or accelerator of change to the industry where the normal strategies of risk mitigation such as weathering currency and commodity fluctuations may prove ineffective.  In looking forward there are three themes that will drive the metamorphosis of the industry.

Read: Facing up to the coronavirus challenge

Technological research and development

To remain competitive, the industry will have to spend more on technological research and development as it used to under the mining house system. We will need new technologies to unlock the country’s remaining mineral wealth and this may include artificial intelligence and deep level remote mining employing skilled operators, rather than sending workers underground

Economies of scale

Small mining operators remain more vulnerable to internal and external threats.  Larger companies are able to spread the risk among their operations, capitalise on economies of scale, attract better investment and unlock funding.

Read: Project delivery in a post-COVID-19 world

Infrastructure challenges

The stability and cost of electricity supply remains the primary infrastructure challenge to the industry.  Small mining operations cannot solve their electricity demands themselves.  It is encouraging that Government is developing strategies to permit and encourage private electricity generation, but the capital costs thereof puts this beyond the reach of small and medium mining operations.

The future may very well look a little like the past.  We should anticipate the consolidation of mining interests and operations over the next few years into the next decade.  In the post-pandemic jungle, the evolution of the mining industry will ensure that only the fittest survive.  To be able to capitalise on these opportunities, mining companies will need to be bigger and stronger. 

About the author: Wessel Badenhorst is a partner at Hogan Lovells Johannesburg.