Is this the mining industry's Arab spring?

There’s an old Tracy Chapman song that goes: “Don’t you know, we’re talking ‘bout a revolution, and it sounds like a WHISPER!

That was the song worm spooling through my head at the Joburg Indaba last week. The industry’s heavy hitters focused on blunt, but constructive conversations. All around the question: How does SA Mining Inc migrate to a better future?

As expected a myriad of issues were raised: Government and Labour dwelt on the trust deficit; mining companies re-iterated the need for regulatory clarity; the investment community criticized dismal returns and an inopportune “capital binge” by management (cited by Jim Rutherford, the world’s top mining analyst).

Most encouraging though, was the conversations didn’t get stuck in problem mode: ideas started to develop around what a competitive, sustainable, industry COULD look like: Without oversimplifying it boils down to 4P’s:

  • Profit: an obvious one. As a sardonic Sandy McGregor of Allan Gray put it, not just a return OF capital but also a return ON capital would be nice.
  • Partnership: there’s a dawning realisation that stakeholders from “opposing” camps need each other to survive and that partnership and the trade-offs are the only way to prosper.
  • Productivity: Anglo American CEO, Mark Cutifani made no bones about productivity being the key to the future of the industry, and for making up for the lost decade in SA mining.
  • Positive narrative: negative talk destroys investor and other stakeholder confidence. The point was made repeatedly: brand SA Mining needs to get its act together, stop whining in public and create and deliver on a positive narrative that inspires investment.

Sounds doable, right? But I’m not convinced that these 4 alone will “unstick” the industry and move it forward.

For me the enlightening moment came courtesy of Valli Moosa, (non executive chairman of Amplats) who admitted that the 5 month Amplats strike revolved around more than wages; that it was shameful that workers had to go on strike to force the industry to look at itself in the mirror; and concluded that “the system is broken.” When he introduced the idea of Modernisation as a solution (which many speakers echoed) – a more overarching concept than mechanisation – I felt hope truly blossom.

Modernisation refers to redesigning: not only 100 year old processes, labour structures, and shift arrangements, but also fundamentally how the industry treats and engages with its employees.

The industry loves talking about mechanisation, for some ore bodies it is viable, and the appeal is obvious: big yellow machines, easy to switch on (and off). Modernisation, however speaks of a much more encompassing idea – and this is a revolutionary one for the industry: to move from the current view of employees as nameless, faceless production units – to seeing them as human beings with unlimited potential, who should participate in strategy, company decision-making and even ownership.

It’s striking that the embattled head of the NUM, Frans Baleni introduced his talk by referring to 980 unnamed miners’ graves. The ANC’s Gwede Mantashe made frequent references to his study of sociology. That’s where union leaders start – with the human being. And they understand how to take human beings with them. They are not afraid of emotion. They connect and engage with their audience. They use stories to create empathy. They are masterful communicators.

Management is the first to admit this. They certainly did so at the conference. In response to the Digivote/Ask the Audience question: “Who do you trust to communicate productivity to the workforce?” the audience voted 60% in favour of the union. A shocking result!

By outsourcing communication and the potential relationship with their employees, managers have outsourced their leadership. It’s a major problem.

To quote Tom Peters (the outspoken management consulting guru) on leadership: “If you’re a leader- your whole reason for living is to help human beings develop – and make work a place that’s energetic and exciting and a growth opportunity, whether you are running a housekeeping department (a mine) or Google. I mean, this is not rocket science. If you are a leader, you DO people. Not my fault. You chose it. And if you don’t get off on it, do the world a favor and get the hell out before dawn, preferably without a gilded parachute. But if you want a gilded parachute, it’s worth it to get rid of you.”

There can be no revolution without leadership. If there’s anything that vividly describes the type of leadership required for “Modernisation“ it’s the paragraph above. Nonwithstanding all the other good stuff, without THAT kind of leadership, a competitive, sustainable, profitable and MODERN SA mining industry may remain an unattainable mirage. Having said that, if the “Future Generation” panel at the Joburg Indaba is anything to go by, my hope is that the industry’s “Arab Spring” is a lot closer than we think!

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