Is the SA Govt’s proposed new mining cadastre already a metaphoric cadaver?

THE answer to the question posed by the headline to this article is, sadly, almost certainly: ‘Yes’. Not only a metaphoric cadaver, but one reeking of corruption and incompetence.

South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources & Energy (DMRE) has recently suggested that it will implement a new mining cadastre to replace the existing SAMRAD (South African Mineral Resources Administration System) system, but has refused to be drawn on timelines.

The DMRE’s SAMRAD system was announced to much fanfare at Mining Indaba 2010 and launched in 2011 – to replace the previous NMPS system.

The DMRE promised the industry that SAMRAD would not only provide “… the locality of applications, rights and permits made or held in terms of the … MPRDA (Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act)”, but also overlay geological and other data useful for the selection of prospective areas for investment.

Sadly, it turned out that SAMRAD was built with a meagre R3.5m budget which required the use of ‘freeware’ and where no network or stress testing had been done prior to launch. The system was immediately overwhelmed.

Users complained of repeated time-outs and system down-time. Various software and networking fixes had to be implemented on the fly in which the system was often taken off line without notice. Help centre calls went unanswered, e-mails too. Apparently SAMRAD later completely fell over when it reached the freeware software’s unanticipated 10,000 record limit.

Shortly after the launch, public access to SAMRAD’s Geographical Information System (GIS) functionality was disabled.

The DMRE persisted with the barely functional SAMRAD system and even though there have been some reports of the GIS functionality being available on occasion in the last decade, it is safe to say that it has mostly never worked.

Further, for some unfathomable reason, the overwhelmed system was only made available during the DMRE’s office hours, further compounding the problem.

What SAMRAD was eventually able to do was provide some workflow solutions related to the submission of new applications and supporting documents.

South Africa has the unfortunate distinction of being one of only a very few major mining jurisdictions without an accessible mining cadastre where anyone can have equal access to “… the locality of applications, rights and permits”, and the related expiry dates. Almost all African countries that compete with South Africa for exploration investment have such systems.

The sad reality in South Africa is that no one can currently tell “… the locality of applications, rights and permits” unless they have favoured inside access to a DMRE official. This information has obvious commercial value and it is strongly suggested that there is a corrupt cottage industry, especially in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape, that trades in access to this information.

I used to think that public access to SAMRAD’s GIS functionality was disabled to directly facilitate this favouritism and or corruption and to hide incompetence. This certainly was an effect of SAMRAD’s failure as a mining cadastre, but as I have recently learned, was perhaps not the direct reason for the public’s access to the GIS functionality being disabled.

I now believe that the real reason was that the original data migration from the NMPS system to SAMRAD was botched, and as a consequence the cadastral data in SAMRAD has never been reliable.

This also explains why the industry has been plagued by the double-granting of mining and prospecting rights (where a new applicant is granted rights over the same property portion as an existing prospecting or mining right) and is the original cause of many disputes.

So, for a decade, DMRE officials have been unable to rely on SAMRAD cadastral data and have had to double check applications and rights against paper copies, which are chaotically stored across multiple regional offices and the head office in Pretoria.

It is clear that the DMRE has not taken the industry or the public into its confidence. It has not been open that there is a problem with the SAMRAD cadastral data and has persisted with a broken system for almost a decade. The DMRE’s credibility, as it relates to effective mining cadastre administration, is at rock bottom.

But worse, it seems a corrupt industry has arisen amongst DMRE and ex-DMRE officials (and cronies close to them) that profits from the department’s own dysfunction. The corruption genie is very difficult to put back into the lamp, as there are now dishonest actors who have it in their interest to delay, sabotage or otherwise prevent an effective and efficient mining cadastre being implemented.

This is further emphasised, to an already incredulous mining public, when the apparent approach chosen by the department is to “refresh” all the DMRE’s systems in one complex and high-risk custom-developed big-bang systems project. This kind of project is at high risk of delay and or failure in the best managed organisations, never mind when at least some organisational insiders are dead set on making it fail to protect their corrupt vested interests.

Of course complex tender requirements, accompanied with a wide or vague scope, also make it much easier to tee-up a tender award for a favoured tenderpreneur – dare I suggest that might be what is happening here?

So as much as I would like to be proved wrong, it is almost certain that the DMRE’s proposed new mining cadastre is already a metaphoric cadaver.

I would suggest the DMRE seriously consider a best-of-breed, proven, mature software solution for a mining cadastre (of which there are at least three with reference sites in African mining jurisdictions alone), rather than contemplate a highly complex custom system solution which has, quite frankly, already been proved by the failed experiment that is SAMRAD, to be firmly beyond the capabilities of the department.

However, my immediate challenge to the DMRE, if it had any interest at all in restoring the mining public’s trust, combating corruption, and perhaps even attracting an increase in exploration investment, would be to periodically extract the raw GIS data from SAMRAD (it is public information after all) and allow interested parties to download the GIS data files and examine them, warts and all, on their own GIS software.

May I further dare to suggest that failure by the DMRE to agree to do so, if formally asked, might actually be evidence of implicit support for corruption at the highest levels in the DMRE?

Perhaps the Minerals Council South Africa could step up and provide a publicly available portal, as a stop gap, to access this information?

The Minerals Council SA claims, after all, to be committed to “… transparent engagement” with stakeholders, despite its members failing to make legally public regulatory documents public themselves; when it, if anyone, must know that SAMRAD is broken.

Alternatively, if the DMRE refuses to make legally public information public, as I expect it will, then perhaps the council’s members could at least publish all their own mining and prospecting right Regulation 2.2 diagrams on their websites, accompanied by the expiry date and commodity covered by the right. Regulation 2.2 diagrams are the formal description, prepared and signed off by a professional land surveyor, of the geographical area covered by a prospecting or mining right.

Paul Miller is a Director at AmaranthCX, a consultancy serving the African mining supply industry.