Technology can transform South Africa’s mining sector

Sustainable mining needs sustainable practices, writes Rudie Opperman, Manager for Engineering and Training, Middle East and Africa at Axis Communications.

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Safety can be enhanced using technology
Safety can be enhanced using technology. Credit: Freepik

The recent conversation around sustainable mining has been centred on two things: the impact of mining activity on surrounding communities and the environment and the sourcing of resources essential for clean-energy networks and systems.

However, the transition to cleaner mining also requires the introduction of sustainable principles and practices to mines that exist today.

South Africa will continue to mine coal and gold for the foreseeable future and these operations need to be both sustainable and continue to operate. But with pressure to increase productivity and adopt more environmentally and socially responsible practices, the mining industry needs a more sustainable, technology-enabled approach.

Towards a sustainable future

South Africa’s economy has been built on rich mineral reserves and has relied on mining to drive development. But the global mining

A mini-grid at Tshikondeni i
Several mining companies are exploring renewable energy options. Exxaro has a renewable energy subsidiary, Cennergi. A mini-grid at Tshikondeni is shown here. Credit: Exxaro

industry is at a crucial inflection point: many mining companies are making strides in the transition towards renewable energy. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has renewed focus on the importance of good social and environmental practices. In South Africa, the transition to renewable energy has resulted in a balancing act between reducing the country’s carbon emissions and mitigating mass coal job losses. Considering that Africa’s economy continues to rely primarily on coal for electricity generation, the shift to cleaner energy will have to be gradual. During this transition, mining organisations must find ways to introduce sustainable practices while considering their impact on the communities in which they operate.

Transition to greener energy

Many mining companies in South Africa and across the globe are joining the collective effort to build a sustainable future for communities and the environment. In 2015, all members of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to chart a way forward for social, economic and environmental change.

Some of South Africa’s biggest mining companies have set ambitious targets to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Investors and stakeholders in the mining sector increasingly demand that mining companies disclose their climate-related financial risks and opportunities according to global recommendations, such as those laid out by the G20’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).

An amendment was made to South Africa’s Electricity Regulation Act in October 2021 to raise the electricity generation licence exemption threshold from 1MW to 100MW. This amendment serves to enable more independent power producers (IPPs) to participate in the energy market without the need for a licence. In April 2022, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy launched a bidding window for the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme. Onshore wind and solar power projects are also being developed across South Africa, and many mining companies are turning to them for electricity because of Eskom’s high tariffs and unreliability.

The need for technological innovation

Mining companies need to develop sustainable solutions to tackle the many challenges and opportunities that come with this shift towards greener energy and greater social and environmental responsibility. While national frameworks and policies help regulate mining activities, not all mines implement best practices to mine sustainably.

In early 2021, Minerals Council South Africa published a report highlighting how the country’s mining industry was increasing its use of technological innovation to transform the sector. Investments in 4IR-enabled digital technologies are helping mining companies become more globally competitive, as well as improving the health and safety of their operations.

South Africa has some of the deepest mines in the world and a historically poor safety record. And while mining fatalities in South Africa have reached record lows over the last decade, there was an 18% increase in 2020 in accidents related to falling rocks and transportation. Mining companies can use smart surveillance solutions in a variety of ways to ensure the safety of employees. Cameras equipped with deep learning-based analytics, for example, can monitor a variety of hazards and create proactive warnings.

These cameras can detect when personnel are not wearing protective equipment or ensure areas of a mine don’t become dangerously overcrowded. They could also be used to monitor dust clouds, which can pose a significant health risk to the work environment and surrounding communities.

An opportunity for transformation

Surveillance technologies can improve the operational efficiency and physical security of mining operations and help mines monitor and mitigate risks to employees, the community and the environment. These technologies represent an opportunity for a real transformation of South Africa’s mining sector: companies that are pivoting towards more sustainable practices must leverage new technologies to their advantage. As South Africa’s mining sector gradually transitions from fossil-fuel dependency and with a renewed focus on social and environmental concerns, mining companies cannot afford to continue with outdated practices and limited technological innovation. The future of our economy – and our planet as a whole – depends on it. 

Rudie Opperman of Axis Communications
Rudie Opperman of Axis Communications