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The South African mining sector has, for more than 100 years, been considered a labour-intensive industry with a mining method characterised by physically demanding manual drilling methods, and operations punctuated by blasting and cleaning, on a stop-start basis.


Sietse Van Der Woude: Senior Executive: Modernisation and Safety
Dick Kruger: Modernisation Consultant


Drilling and blasting methods have historically been used in South African narrow reef, hard-rock mining for gold, platinum and chrome. Working conditions are generally considered to be harsh with abrasive rock, steep gradients and seismicity. And, with increasing depth, the virgin rock temperature continues to rise. Furthermore, most mines are aging, resulting in travel times to actual places of work sometimes reaching an hour or more. Consequently, with increasing depth and distance from the shaft, actual drill time at the workface has contracted, thereby shrinking production and contributing to burgeoning costs, and in certain cases posing additional threats to health and safety standards.

With gold and platinum mining companies struggling for a number of years in a low commodity-price environment that has been exacerbated by rising costs, a shift towards modernisation or mechanisation is non-negotiable.

Work done to date has indicated that the conversion to mechanisation significantly extends mine life; preserves mining employment; improves safety and health; and allows the mining of lower-grade orebodies and deeper resources. Ultimately, without a shift in our approach to mining methodology, we will fail to mine South Africa’s deep-level complex orebodies profitably, which could see a huge negative impact on South Africa and a failure to turn to account the country’s mineral wealth in the long term. Recent research has suggested that, should the current decline not be arrested, 200,000 job losses may occur by 2030, which could affect two million people indirectly.

Mechanisation also creates an environment conducive to 24/7 operations until 2045 and beyond in the gold sector, higher skills utilisation and job preservation. In the platinum group metals (PGMs) sector, at current prices and cost forecasts, conventional mining ceases to be economically viable after 2024. With mechanised mining equipment, most mines’ lives will be extended to 2045 and beyond while 24/7 operations will extend mine life to beyond 2040. In addition, deeper resources and greenfields targets will be added, relying on 24/7 methods.

The Minerals Council is of the view that the positive outcomes of modernisation will outweigh the challenges that will inevitably be encountered along the way. To remain globally competitive and achieve zero harm, the mining sector can ill afford to delay these efforts and the Minerals Council will continue to collaborate with all stakeholders to accelerate this journey.


Modernisation is not simply mechanisation and/or gradual implementation of new technology. It is not the replacement of people with machines. It is not a euphemism for job losses.

It is a process of transition and transformation of the mining industry of yesteryear and today to that of tomorrow.

Modernising the mining industry involves:

  • Turning to account South Africa’s mineral resources in the safest, most efficient, cost-effective and sustainable manner possible
  • Recognising that people are at the heart of our industry with focus on improving skills, health, quality of life and fulfilment of employees
  • Conservation of natural resources, preservation and restoration of the environment
  • Contributing to the development of local and labour-sending communities
  • Recognising that metals and minerals are valuable, useful and necessary
  • Transformation and growth as key imperatives of the mining industry and nation


  • Chief executives of the Minerals Council have agreed on the following strategic objective: to promote innovation, and research and development (R&D) for the mining sector by facilitating collaborative efforts in innovation that will contribute to achieving zero harm and sustainable, viable and socially acceptable mining into the future.
  • In preparation for Mining Phakisa, the Minerals Council conducted extensive research into mine modernisation and developed a strategic framework to indicate how the mining sector could achieve its objectives while, at the same time, contributing to the National Development Plan objectives of higher growth, employment, exports and government revenue.


A new senior executive position has been created to champion this modernisation throughout the organisation. In addition, an innovation team, consisting of senior company representatives, has been established to steer the Minerals Council’s efforts.

The Minerals Council conducted extensive research into mine modernisation and developed a strategic framework for modernisation to indicate how the mining sector could achieve its objectives while contributing to National Development Plan objectives of higher growth, employment, exports and government revenue.

The three key enablers of modernisation have been identified as:

  • Research and development

  • Massive investment is required with initial focus on narrow-reef, hard-rock mining equipment and systems. Incentives should be provided for companies to invest in R&D and a world-class, collaborative R&D hub is in the process of being created. This is being done with the collaboration of industry (through the Minerals Council), various key government departments, universities and research institutions.

  • Mining manufacturing

  • The development of a mining manufacturing development programme to facilitate increased levels of local manufacture of mining equipment, industrialisation using local labour, reduced cost of ownership for mines and optimal mining production.

  • Sustainability issues

  • A transition road map for modernisation will include sustainability impact assessments of future mining scenarios and accelerated skills development of employees in local communities.

    The Minerals Council has identified the products, technologies, people and infrastructure required to mechanise the stoping and development cycle with remotely operated equipment by 2020. Similar requirements have been developed for a 24/7 mechanised mining system that operates without explosives by 2025. Additionally, systems to modernise current conventional mining operations; to make them safer, healthier, more productive and sustainable have also been identified.

    An exciting new area of work that has been initiated is digitisation where appropriate technologies and systems can be developed to keep abreast with international developments in the “Internet of Things” as applicable in the mining industry.

    During the Mining Phakisa, detailed plans were developed to accelerate progress in all the building blocks for modernising mining through a partnership between the public and private sectors. The Minerals Council will participate actively in the implementation of these plans. Mining companies have spent over R500 million annually over the past couple of years on innovation and the Minerals Council has advocated that substantive investments be made by government to accelerate these efforts. This campaign culminated in an allocation in the national budget for R&D in the mining industry (in the extractive phase of the value chain) at levels unprecedented in the past.

    None of this work will be sustainable or meaningful without due consideration of the human factors associated with modernisation in mining, and thus an inclusive process of identifying issues and providing win-win solutions for all stakeholders has been initiated through a dedicated programme in this area.


    While a number of individual products have been developed by mining companies and manufacturers, an integrated suite of locally manufactured products with real-time monitoring and control is needed. The industry has set a milestone for the implementation of a cyclical drill-and-blast suite of equipment that mechanises all activities in the stoping and development cycle, including remotely operated equipment. In addition to this milestone, the following research areas have been identified as critical to the development of R&D needs in the mining industry.

    Work done to date indicates that such modernisation significantly extends mine life, preserves mining employment, improves safety and health, and allows mining of lower-grade orebodies and deeper resources. This also creates an environment conducive to 24/7 operations until 2045 and beyond in the gold sector, higher skills utilisation and job preservation.

    With new equipment, which allows the conventional drill, blast and clean cycle of working, work can be done 24/7 by miners skilled in the use of remotely controlled equipment from safe, healthy sites.

    While all mines differ from one another, it is possible to predict the effect that this might have on a with a low-grade gold ore resource, totalling 400Mt, that is amenable to profitable extraction using mechanised techniques. In addition, there are some 160Mt of high-grade ore locked in underground support pillars, accessible from current infrastructure. At least double could be mined below current infrastructure using appropriate technologies.

    A low-grade mine with a current conventionally mined life expectancy of some four years, using semi-mechanised methods, could extend operations to 15 years and, with full mechanisation and 24/7 operations, to as much as 25 years.


    Strategic framework for Modernisation


    A study, drawing on the estimates of South Africa’s three principal gold companies – AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony and Sibanye – indicates that, for one mine, every 1g/t reduction in the cut-off grade would result in 10Mt of additional ore containing 200t of gold to be mined over the operation’s extended life.

    This is an indication of the benefits of using full-mechanised mining techniques operating 24/7. Extrapolating this across the industry as a whole – to its currently working and dormant mines – profitable gold-mining operations might be expected to continue well beyond the year 2045. Looked at as a whole, with conventional mining, the industry can look forward to a sharp decline in gold production by 2019-20 and for mining to die out almost completely by 2033. The picture changes radically with mechanisation: annual output persists at current levels until at least 2025 and until 2030 or even beyond with 24/7, mechanised operations.

    Resources PNG mechanisation


    If this process of modernisation and the manufacture of high-tech, robust and specialised mining equipment is to be achieved, an ad hoc approach cannot be contemplated. The industry, manufacturers, researchers and developers will need to collaborate to the full, sharing their knowledge and skills for common good. The aims are to develop, manufacture and use remotely controlled mobile equipment to break, load and haul ore continuously. Breaking will need to be explosives-free and the equipment must, as far as possible, be self-correcting. However, work on developing continuous miners that satisfy these criteria has yet to begin in earnest.

    Learning from the past and, particularly from past mistakes, the R&D process will need to be carefully planned and carried out:

    • It must create an environment where everyone (all stakeholders) want it to succeed
    • The R&D structure must not slow down progress
    • Mechanised: a 50% reduction in cost per ounce, and zero-harm operations
    • 24/7 mechanised: a step-change improvement in costs
    • A mechanised implementable solution in three to five years
    • A workable 24/7 rock breaking system in 10 to 15 years
    • Learn from the past: successes and failures
    • Restrict any tendencies to return to conventional mining and allay any resistance to change
    • Allow sufficient time for maturity at each phase of R&D

    The process cannot be completed overnight so we have to prepare for a staged approach that may differ in the gold and (PGMs) sectors.

    The first part of the venture should build on existing knowledge in the gold and PGMs sectors. The eventual objectives are systems that combine to deliver 24/7 mechanised operations with costs that permit the exploitation of ores at significantly lower cut-off grades. Extensive and fundamental research is required into mine-worthy, reliable, non-explosive rock breaking in a hard and high-stress rock environment. Targets and milestones will be exacting but reaching for the stars has always motivated humankind.


    To facilitate and accelerate the process of mining modernisation, a Mining Hub was set up to co-ordinate research and development (R&D), mining equipment manufacture and skills development by mining companies, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), research entities, skills-development entities and government in collaboration.

    The Mandela Mining Precinct innovation hub and the Mining Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMSA) were launched in September 2018. The Mandela Mining Precinct is a public private cooperation that supports local, people-centred innovation to modernise the South African mining cluster. Its partnership with MEMSA empowers the mining cluster to save and create jobs in mining and the mining industries’ supplier industries.

    Open innovation goes beyond drawing on external sources of innovation, such as customers, rival companies and academic institutions. It can integrate adaptations in the use, management and employment of intellectual property by systematically encouraging and exploring a wide range of internal and external sources for opportunities, integration and exploitation through various channels.

    The primary objective of the hub is to be a partnership that advances the mining cluster by:

    1. Co-ordinating research and development with initial focus on future underground narrow reef, hard-rock mining systems
    2. Developing South African mining manufacture that supports the country’s narrow-reef, hard-rock mines, and promotes export potential of locally manufactured mining equipment
    3. Facilitating skills development for future narrow-reef, hard-rock mining systems
    Objective of mining

    Mine 2030 website

    The hub will only co-ordinate R&D, manufacturing and skills development – it will not have these capabilities – in terms of a management structure. The organisations involved will be selected as “centres of excellence”, which engage voluntarily, complementing the ideals and objectives of the hub and not competing counter-productively.

    It will be a virtual centre connecting an established network through a central database that monitors progress on selected pilot projects.