Mining faces an historic reckoning; the time is now for leaders with courage to step up

IT is not easy to be a mining executive these days, faced with a global virus pandemic, an economy in recession, a climate crisis and a global energy transition juggernaut causing havoc with export markets. And yet this is really a reckoning, since the mining industry has in many ways contributed to the social, environmental and economic crises in which we find ourselves today.

Mining continues to overlook the human cost of mining: the exploitation of labour, the devastation of livelihoods and wellbeing in mining-affected communities, and the failure to distribute mining profits equitably. Now, communities affected by the worst impacts of mining are increasingly organised, and – at great risk to themselves and their families – are not only calling for a complete overhaul of mining laws, but are increasingly winning the battle in court for the right to say no to mining.

No matter how much greenwashing you do, mining is also incredibly destructive of the environment upon which we rely for life. It uses and pollutes unconscionable amounts of water, sterilises the soil we need to grow food, and creates air pollution that causes ill health and death. Many mines are also major emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that cause global warming, and coal mines drive development of, or failure to decommission, the coal power plants that are some of the biggest GHG emitters.

To keep average global temperature increase below 1.5°C degrees and avoid some of the worst impacts of global warming, global coal use must reduce by 80% in the next decade. This has radical implications not only for the coal mining and electricity industry, but for coal-reliant industries like steel and cement.

On the other hand, not making these adjustments will mean, according to our own government, that “life as we know it will change completely”, with average temperature increases in the South African interior of between 2 to 3°C by 2050, and between 6 to 7°C by 2100. This will have significant and potentially catastrophic impacts on human health, agriculture, and water-intensive sectors such as mining.

To maximise our ability to adapt to a warmer climate, we have to make radical changes to preserve the natural resources we have not yet destroyed. Given how the way we do mining now pollutes and sterilises our soil, water and air, this calls for a radical reconceptualisation of the way we do mining.

This means giving consideration to whether the end use of a particular mineral commodity promotes equitable prosperity and human well-being, and whether this justifies the opportunity cost of extracting it. It means exploring mineral recycling opportunities, and for manufacturing that relies heavily on recycled materials. It means a far more rigorous system of protection for important areas of biodiversity, strategic water source areas and food-producing zones from mining.

It also means valuing and respecting the people most affected by the proposed mining as equal stakeholders – not just those who stand to profit.

A low-carbon world will still require mining, but to survive we must do this in a way that allows us to move away from a destructive and unsustainable extractive model to one that progresses the quality, equity and future of life on this planet. Do South African mining executives have the vision and courageous leadership this requires?

Melissa Fourie is the Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Rights, a non-profit public interest law centre that works with communities and civil society organisations to realise the Constitutional right to a healthy environment by advocating and litigating for environmental justice.


  1. Since Greta took to the stage, everyone feels entitled to an opinion, which simply MUST be shared with everyone. And, yes, taken seriously 🤣🤣🤣

  2. Too late now to refer to “historic reckoning”. Historic reckoning came in 1990 when everyone, including Mining Executives, had to and did realize that apartheid shackles, which had bound EVERYONE, including the Mining Executives, were finally off and the air of democracy and political freedom was blowing through the country. At that point all Executives of all companies who had benefited immensely from apartheid, were faced with a decision whether to support the country and assist with achievement of economic freedom of those disadvantaged by apartheid, or progressively get their companies to flee South Africa, taking with them the untold wealth accumulated by their companies through this country’s resources, including cheap labour resources and supporting apartheid legislation. If they had made the right choice, South Africa would have started after apartheid to use mining revenues as the bedrock of economic advancement, much like Australia, Canada and Norway have done with revenues from their mineral resources.

  3. It is regrettable that Ms Fourie and the CER are again given the opportunity to present their distorted view of the broader resource industry.
    The editor has the right to decide what to publish and Ms Fourie has the right to her opinion on this matter.
    Ms Fourie again expounds on many points of view that have NO factual basis – It would take too long to respond adequately to all the points raised.
    Climate change is reality – as Earth evolves so does the climate. Get used to it.
    Ms Fourie should realize that her whole way of life is based on minerals and metals.
    Cell phone battery – Lithium. Water pipes in her house – Copper. Window panes – glass – SiO2 – silica. Bricks – clay minerals. The list is endless.
    Food derived from seeds – commercial farming needs phosphates P2O5 and potash K2O to improve yields.
    Ms Fourie – mankind has in many ways caused degradation of the planet.
    Mining supports the demand for metals and minerals that are required for further urbanization . This is a global trend.
    Mining has major economic benefits for SA. The creation of wealth is being hampered by Ms Fourie’s pathological prejudice against mining. Together with Mr Spoor and Ms Youens an effort is being made to stop the expansion of the Somkhele Colliery in rural Natal in a poverty stricken area. According to these people it is better to stop employment completely and leave these people to subsist on handouts from the government than give them the dignity of work
    Mining is the price we pay for our modern highly developed lifestyle that started with the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century.
    It is suggested that Ms Fourie and the CER should concern themselves with the urban pollution resulting from dysfunctional municipalities:
    Sewage in streets
    Rubbish dumps with uncontrolled dumping which spreads over wide areas when the wind blows.
    Environmental destruction in squatter camps where there is NO sewage infrastructure
    No rubbish collection
    Pollution of rivers
    Unfortunately the irrational outlook of Ms Fourie and the CER are just adding more and more hurdles to an industry that is already in terminal decline due to the antiquated ideology of this government. In addition the added burden of the excessive bureaucracy required to initiate activity in the resources industry. Add the post 1994 culture of the begging bowl which adds costs to the feasibility of mining project ( i.e. 30 % free carry , social and labour plans, BEE etc.) and raises the investment threshold and chases investors away.

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