“Innovation means doing things better, faster, and improving lives. It’s about making processes more efficient and ensuring safety remains a priority in mining. Innovation can involve improving existing methods or creating entirely new approaches and systems.”
- Mining Remains Key to South Africa’s Future: Mining has historically been a core driver of South Africa’s economy, with mineral resources, including gold, diamonds, and others, playing a significant role in shaping the nation’s development and contributing to its GDP. Despite recent challenges, mining remains crucial for South Africa.
- Sustainable Mining and A Just Transition: Sustainable mining involves responsible practices that prioritize environmental impact, safety, and the well-being of both the environment and the community. A just transition is necessary when transitioning to a green economy, with a focus on balancing technological advancements with the needs of workers and communities.
- Technology and Innovation: Technology, including automation, is advancing rapidly in the mining industry. Collaboration with universities and institutions is vital to adapt to new modes of mining and enhance safety. Innovations aim to make mining more efficient and protect workers.
- Partnerships and Skills Development: Partnerships are fundamental in the mining industry, fostering collaboration between educational institutions, employers, and various stakeholders. Dr. Mashongoane emphasizes the importance of developing skills that meet industry needs to ensure graduates are job-ready. SETAs like MQA facilitate learning opportunities, bridging the gap between academia and industry.
Dr Thabo Mashongoane speaks with AfricaLive Editor Fraser Mitchell.
Fraser Mitchell: How would you define the identity of MQA and your role within South Africa’s continued development?
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: MQA stands for Mining Qualifications Authority, a sector skills body in South Africa, referred to as SETAs (Sector Education and Training Authorities). Its aim was primarily to skill the workforce in the mineral and mining sector, so as to impart the necessary skills to new entrants into this sector.
We are an intermediate body linking institutions of learning, education, and training providers to the labor market.
My role as the Chief Executive Officer of the Mining Qualifications Authority is to steer the SETA in the right direction, to ensure it aligns with its mandated legislation. But also, it goes beyond that to see what strategic opportunities we can catalyze to assist the sector in achieving its maximum output in terms of productivity, skills, and capacity.
Fraser Mitchell: Yes, and of course, it’s a key role within South Africa’s economy. Maybe just speaking to an international audience who may not be so aware, what does mining mean for South Africa as a nation and how has it shaped your nation as you find it now?
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: Mining in South Africa is one of the core economic drivers. It dates back many years when diamond and gold were discovered.
Today, we have a city called Johannesburg, originally a gold town. This simply says this city was built at the backdrop of the mineral called gold.
We also have other minerals; for instance, Kimberley, known for its significant diamond discoveries. So, in South Africa, we have heavily relied on the minerals beneath the ground to drive our economy. Mining contributes immensely to our GDP, despite recent downturns. It remains a major contributor to South Africa’s GDP.
Mining minerals is crucial for South Africa.
Fraser Mitchell: Our reporting focuses on how partnerships between industry, education, and government can resolve many of the challenges that we face. But we’re also very aware that partnerships, while necessary, can be very difficult to get right. So I would like to ask, what does partnership mean to you? Can you give us some insight into your conversations with industry and how the MQA addresses their concerns and looks to resolve them?
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: Partnership is fundamental for our sector in the mining industry. Our role is to catalyze and assist in capacitating the sector with requisite high-end skills. This includes geologists, technicians, and various intermediary skills.
Partnerships are necessary with technical and vocational institutions, colleges, and especially universities for high-end skills.
However, having these alone is not enough; we must address the demand side by engaging with employers in the industry, the mining houses. It’s crucial to involve stakeholders like the mineral councils of South Africa, the government, and trade unions. Partnering with these key stakeholders ensures we deliver the required skills, bridging the gap between universities and employer needs.
For us, partnership forms the foundation for capacity building in this sector.
Fraser Mitchell: The challenge is not unique to South Africa but a common issue worldwide—a mismatch between university outputs and industry needs. Universities aim to develop well-rounded individuals, while industries often require specific and timely skills. This is where SETAs step in South Africa, acting as a bridge to address this gap.
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: Indeed, the primary mandate of public universities is to nurture holistic individuals. Similarly, colleges strive for this, providing not only practical skills but also essential skills such as communication, critical thinking, and public speaking.
However, we, as skills bodies or cetas in South Africa, need to recognize the importance of adding value to graduates from these institutions. We must equip graduates with the necessary skills that meet employer demands, ensuring they are employable from day one.
Our interventions aim to achieve this objective in various ways. I can discuss short skills programs and artisanal skills programs. In South Africa, we have what we call learnerships, which can be termed as work experience globally after a graduate completes their studies. Sometimes, employers may lack the resources or time to facilitate this.
This is where the SETAs come in to ease the process for employers and assist the learning institutions. It’s crucial to find the right balance.
Fraser Mitchell: Yes, when considering South Africa’s long-term development and the African continent, concerns about potential skills shortages, especially in engineering, are cited as reasons for lack of confidence in the country’s future for investors. How would you assess the current depth of available skills? Could you provide insights into the objectives set for the coming years?
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: Indeed, as the Mining Qualifications Authority and other SETAs in their respective sectors, we develop Sector Skills Plans that analyze the current and future skills needs of our sector, particularly in minerals and manufacturing. We gather information through work skills plans, templates provided to employers annually. They provide us with information relevant to their environment.
We also request progress reports at the end of the year regarding funding and course progression. By analyzing this data and conducting M C sector research, we try to anticipate the future skills needs within the sector. However, staying in close contact with employers is crucial due to the constantly changing economic and technological landscape.
Fraser Mitchell: MQA also engages in research, examining future trends and their potential impact on the mining sector.
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: Yes, we do have a research unit, although not very large. We focus on achieving our development goals, particularly the development of the sector skills plan. This involves understanding the Work Skills Plan and the sector’s trends.
Additionally, we commission research to various researchers or universities through a supply chain process. For example, we might request research on a specific aspect, like the number of artisans we’ve trained within a given period, their current status, and the overall impact.
We promptly identify and develop new interventions in case there are gaps. For instance, we’ve recently engaged with several university vice-chancellors, and this engagement continues.
We’re planning to engage with colleges and public entities within the sector. We’re also striving to establish a research chair for the Mining Qualifications Authority to bolster and sustain our initiatives.
Fraser Mitchell: Absolutely. It’s a fascinating aspect of your work. Developing skills not just for the present but anticipating the future. We’ve discussed the challenge posed by the ever-changing landscape and external factors that make future prediction challenging. Let’s delve into specific areas that could shape the future of mining and industry in South Africa. My first question centres around the term ‘sustainable mining.’ What does that signify to you?
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: Sustainable mining, to me, involves practices that prioritize environmental impact while mining. It encompasses governance aspects, ensuring responsible mining activities. Sustainability factors in the community around the mining area, considering the minerals being mined and their environmental impact.
It also entails prioritizing employees’ holistic health and safety to minimize adverse effects on both the environment and people.
South Africa has seen ghost towns due to past neglect of sustainable mining and ESG principles. We must prioritize safety in our sector and ensure each worker returns home after their shift, reducing fatalities and caring for their health, transforming the way we approach mining from past practices.
Fraser Mitchell: You’ve highlighted a critical point—the existence of ghost towns when industries cease, leaving communities in collapse. This isn’t exclusive to South Africa, we’ve seen this worldwide: industries closing decades ago still impact the communities profoundly.
This emphasizes the importance of a just transition as part of the ongoing green economy transition in South Africa. Significant investments are being made, but it’s crucial to keep humans and workers at the heart of this transition. How does your organization strive to strike a balance? On one hand, embracing sustainability and technological opportunities, and on the other hand, ensuring people and jobs remain central.
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: You are spot on. Just about three weeks ago, our team addressed the National Union of Mine Workers in South Africa, one of the fastest-growing unions in the space. They held a summit on a just energy transition where various ministers were present. The emphasis was from a union’s point of view to ensure that we unpack what a just transition means and not leave the people behind, considering the potential impact of any new mining approach.
For instance, South Africa has been coal-driven for many years, and there’s a need to carefully transition while taking care of the people and the environment. Balancing this is challenging, especially when considering socioeconomic factors.
Fraser Mitchell: Absolutely. I’m sure you will have spoken with Professor Mpedi at the University of Johannesburg on the impact of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, on mining’s near future and the workers. Do you see technology as something the future worker should be concerned about?
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: We cannot overlook technology; it’s rapidly advancing and has complex implications. Without a concerted national effort, we might lose ground as some companies swiftly transition into new modes of mining through technology and automation.
Our role is to catalyze and participate in these discussions and initiatives, collaborating with universities and institutions actively engaged in the mining space. Automation, digitization, and VR technologies are vital aspects we are engaging with, focusing on skilling and training, considering the advantages like cost savings and enhanced safety.
For a new learner, you can assist them in acquainting with the workplace before exposing them to the actual work environment. It does have those advantages. There are disadvantages in places with a high literacy rate. In South Africa, we’ve intervened through a labour manual. So there might be a need for balance, addressing the ageing workforce and providing alternative means for those unable to transition to new technology.
Fraser Mitchell: It seems collaboration and partnerships will be key in finding solutions beneficial for the South African people.
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: Absolutely. Our board is quite representative, aligning with government requirements. Discussions in the boardroom need to balance the people’s needs and driving the economy profitably while adhering to governance frameworks.
Fraser Mitchell: I’d like to ask you about innovation within the South African context. What does innovation mean to you?
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: Innovation means doing things better, faster, and improving lives. It’s about making processes more efficient and ensuring safety remains a priority in mining. Innovation can involve improving existing methods or creating entirely new approaches and systems.
Fraser Mitchell: Looking at the future, how confident are you in South Africa’s future and the future of the mining sector on a scale of 0 to 10?
Dr Thabo Mashongoane: I am confident in South Africa’s future, around a 7. We have challenges, but with collaboration, innovation, and effective governance, we can navigate them and contribute positively to the mining sector and the country’s economy.