Over the last week, I have taken you to Mercedes Benz Africa Fashion International for a glimpse of the fashionable side of Johannesburg and through a historical trail in Soweto, and Day 3 takes us – bright and early – to to eMalahleni, where the true essence of this South African sojourn comes to life with our visit to Anglo-American mine at Greenside Colliery and Water Reclamantion Plant.
For those who think South Africa is all about braai, beer and beaches, you’re in for a surprise. It becomes evident, even in the first three days I have spent here, that South Africa is in the race to contribute to all aspects of technology globally. To get a glimpse of how this work is carried out in the mining industry, we set out at 5am from our hotel for an hour and a half journey to eMalahleni. Thankfully, there is coffee waiting for us by the time we get there.
General Manager Frank Glaeser and his management team welcome us with cheery mien and bright smiles just about powerful enough to wake us up from our early-morning naps. We are ushered into the boardroom to find out about the work of Anglo American at Greenside.
Only a few minutes into the presentation and it is clear that the leading core value at Greenside amongst others (namely accontability, care and respect, collaboration, innovation) is safety, which is not a mere buzzword but a lifestyle. With last fatality on 20 February 2013, and consistent emphasis of working safe, it is no surprise that both the management and the workers at Greenside are keen to keep their safety record clean. What is more, with solar panels on site, water recreation systems in place and the Fungcoal project which aims to cultivate grass on coal, and many other environmental initiative, Anglo American also takes their environmental responsibility very seriously.
Giving back doesn’t end with the environment either as AngloAmerican is keen to diversify the economy of a town dependent on mining in order to prepare the town people for a time when the mine closes which is predicted to be 2032 at the current rate of mining. With ZIMELE, an Anglo American enterprise development initiative established in 1989 to provide funding and support to previously disadvantaged South Africans, so far 936 jobs have been created in this one town along with 82% of businesses reaching sustainability within the first year.
After we don our endless gear – undergarments, bright yellow overalls, heavy working boots, helmets, gloves, ear plugs coupled with a torch and emergency kit, we jump on the bus to travel 60 metres underground. We stop often as the drivers in each vehicle passing each other chat for a few minutes; this enforced chit chat, we are later told, is part of the safety requirements whereby each driver can assess the alertness of co-workers as well as alert them to any potential hazards en route.
Deep in the pit of George mine, we step into the underground tunnels clad in darkness. It is hard to imagine working an 8hr shift deep underground with no access to daylight for hours and your only contact a telephone. We meet the engineering team down below including Karabo, a 2011 University of Pretoria Mine Engineering graduate who has worked her way up on a graduate training scheme and is not a lead engineer. “My parents didn’t quite understand why I wanted to be a miner really,” explains Karabo as we catch up later, “Me neither to be honest. When the recruiters came to our university to talk about employment and graduate schemes, I signed up and here I am.”
Although the continuous miner used to extract coal is undergoing maintenance, the team are happy to give us a quick peek of how coal is extracted. The roar of the machine is overwhelming as it starts up and begins digging overhead as the extracted coal is ploughed into the shuttle core which can take up to 20 tonnes.
During the 15 minutes we watch, mesmerised, three loads of shuttle core are filled and whisked off. Miners can cover up to 50-70metres during and 8-hour shift, we are told, and George is one of the three mines at Greenside Colliery in the top ten of national mines with a production rate of 1.06 million tonnes a year.
Once we are back safely overground, and out of our mining gear – a process which takes up to almost ten whole minutes, involving careful detachment of our helmets with the torch attached on top, emergency kits off our belts, taking off the heavy boots and thick socks and peeling off the overalls and undergarments, we are whisked off to the water reclamation plant.
AngloAmerican boasts 100,000 employees and 8 commodities across 5 continents, reclaiming 139 billion litres of water annually. Committed to sustainability, more than 70% of their operations run in water-scarce countries. Just in 2012, recycling rate for their plants was over 70% with four sites performing at over 90%. The progress made at Greenside since 1994 is equally impressive, while in 1994-1995 only 65% of mine water was recovered, with the latest technologies available, the figure between 2005-2008 stands at a whopping 99%.
We are then taken around the reactor to observe the different phases mine water goes through to refine and purify it to potable standards. From murky brown to a more Horlick-like colour, as the acidity of the water changes and the metals contain inside solidify then precipitate, it completes the journey through the reactor to its purest form ready to be recycled. In the words of Thubendran Naidu, the Hydrology Manager, “what was once a liability becomes an opportunity.”
Once again out of our neon vest and helmets and protective goggles and footwear, we are back on the bus back to our hotel for an evening with our hosts, Brand South Africa.
While most of the day felt much like a science lesson, the evening is more for the Humanities-minded folk like myself, with a journey in history with the work of PAST, Paleontological Scientific Trust.
“The first spark of human consciousness was from Africa and only this continent tells 99% of the human story which lies in fossil bones.” says CEO Andrea Leenan, before introducing the work of Walking Tall Educational Theatre Project, a physical theatre production on the history of life and humankind.
A fascinating performance choreographed in just 8 weeks by Thabo Monareng, Mdu Nhlapo and Nomcebo Gumede punctuates the summary of the origins of humankind in Africa by American Professor Emeritus of Evolutionary Anthropology Robert Blumenschine, the chief scientific, education and fundraising strategist at PAST, who referred to southern Africa as the “cauldron of humanity.”
Following the work of PAST which also introduced us to their 99.9 African Roots campaign, we were welcomed “home” by Brand South Africa CEO, Miller Matola.
Also speaking at the dinner was Mr. Collins Chabane, Minister for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in The Presidency who said, “It is going to take us some time to erase the legacy of our past but at least we have laid the foundations. We have moved forward and South Africa is a better place to live. Our experience is different from anywhere in the world and we have all laid the foundation to build our legacy.”
Chabane also reminds us and South African journalists present of the several innovative strides taken by the country including the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a series of radio telescopes being built in South Africa.
“It is very exciting that, with the work of SKA, and PAST, respectively looking into the origins of life and origins of the universe, a little country at the tip of the world can offer answers to both of those,” highlights Leenan.
Despite an early start and a long day out, I can’t help but feel excited to be right here, right now, given the opportunity to tell the story of this country keen to make peace with its legacy, look into and learn from its ancient and more immediate past in order to launch itself forward.
Images of underground mine, Karabo and the team and journalists courtesy of Greenside Colliery
Images of Mr. Miller Matola, Mr. Collins Chabane Robert Blumenschine and group picture courtesy of Brand South Africaby