The mining industry must seize this moment to win hearts and minds
The crisis at universities is throwing up some delightful contradictions. Just as students of the University of Pretoria are deriding its management as agents of white monopoly capital, students of the University of the Witwatersrand are marching on all those white monopoly capitalists down at the Chamber of Mines to demand more money.
In the meantime, Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), is telling us to "prepare ourselves for life after mining". One of those praying for that day is Geoff Davies of the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute, who proclaims that continued reliance on "extractive industries" will "impoverish" us all. "We are in desperate need of employment," Bishop Davies says, and we must develop tourism and agriculture, but definitely not open any new coal mines. This despite the fact that if we do not do so we will run out of electricity again.
Many mining companies have already chosen not life after mining but life outside South Africa. If hostility towards mining persists, we will soon be a post-mining economy. Even though we have the richest non-oil mineral reserves in the world, 66 countries are rated by investors as more attractive destinations for their risk capital than we are.
The mining industry has too long been quiet in the face of attack from all around it. When it does speak, it puts more emphasis on its charitable work than on its importance to the economy. That is why the industry is losing the propaganda war.
Last week's presentation by the Chamber of Mines to the Human Rights Commission was far too defensive. It said plenty about addressing such issues as the "legacies of the past", women in mining, employment equity, and social plans. But there was little about the damage that the government has inflicted upon the industry with its hostile legislation, never-ending policy demands, licensing skulduggery, capricious regulation, and unnecessary stoppage edicts. All this has been aided and abetted by the government's fellow travellers in the media, civil society, the church, the trade union movement, certain business lobbies, and, of course, on campus.
Now that students and their teachers are demanding that mining companies cough up even more for education, the industry should seize the opportunity to drive home some essential facts and arguments. If mining companies can spend R5 billion last year on skills development, never mind finance 12 500 tertiary students in the last four years, they can find the money to invest in a major public relations and advertising campaign.
Conducted in all media and in all languages, this would need three prongs. The first is the importance of mining to the whole economy. The second is how much investment, growth, and employment have been lost over the past 20 years thanks to destructive attitudes and policies. The third is what policy changes are needed to lift South Africa from 67th on the Fraser index of attractiveness for mining investment to the top.
The industry prefers dealing with the government behind closed doors. This strategy is born partly of fear of victimisation, partly of guilt, partly of confusion, partly of divided opinions, partly of gullibility, and partly of cowardice. Occasionally, a few mining leaders speak out, but silence then reigns again. Calling for Jacob Zuma to quit, as a few mining men have done, is fine as far as it goes.
More important is to win the battle of hearts and minds to save the industry, and those millions of people and families who depend on it, from being further laid waste by the African National Congress and its allies. This battle will need prodigious staying-power. Most chamber members are too timid to fight. But that should not deter the brave. The alternative is the end of South Africa as a mining country, with only illegal miners left.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.