"While we cannot escape that the South African mining industry does have deep-rooted challenges, it is heartening to see that there are stakeholders who want to work together to find a solution."
Can you give an overview of Webber Wentzel and the company’s history in South Africa?
KC: Established over 150 years ago, Webber Wentzel is the leading full-service law firm on the African continent - providing clients with seamless, tailored and commercially minded business solutions.
We have the largest dedicated mining team on the ground in Africa. We have impressive bench strength which allows us to staff matters appropriately with the required multi-disciplinary and leveraged team. We advise clients across the full mining lifecycle and we advise all players - from mining companies, to governments, financiers, service providers, suppliers and advisers to the industry.
We have a long history of delivering innovative solutions to our clients' most complex legal issues in Africa's mineral rich countries.
How does the mining industry’s response to the pandemic compare to other sectors?
LL: When the pandemic started mines were shut down and only essential services employees were allowed to work. The mining industry immediately engaged with its stakeholders, the Minerals Council, and the government and put precautions in place for the industry to reopen.
The biggest mining union in South Africa, AMCU, applied to the Labour Court in a bid to have Covid dealt with as an occupational health issue (as opposed to a public health issue) and that codes must be developed on an employment level to deal with the prevention of the spread of Covid. Ultimately the case was settled, and mines did implement codes specifically on how to deal with the prevention and combat of the spread of Covid.
The government has a hold on the procurement and distribution of vaccines, but the industry has been particularly vocal about the role they want to play. They have occupational health centres available where they can receive, store, and professionally administer vaccines. Some mining companies have gone as far as to say that if allowed, they will procure and pay for vaccines to give to their employees, their dependents, and the communities surrounding the mining operations.
What implications do you see the pandemic having on the overall working culture in South Africa?
KC: There have been marked changes and developments in working culture, most obviously the shift towards greater working from home. From a policy and risk management perspective, there have been developments in how this is managed.
As the work from home situation progressed, we have seen a far greater shift in appreciation for the role of mental health of employees in the workplace, as part of health and safety more generally. It has been encouraging to see employers embrace flexibility and technology.
LL: In the mining industry, some employees cannot work remotely, and the industry had to be creative in developing and applying policies as not to be seen as discriminatory. This included policies on how to deal with vulnerable employees who could not work safely at mines due to the infection risk and mandatory vaccination policies.
What are the main regulatory concerns for the South African mining industry?
KC: I think there are many possible answers to this question, depending on the stage of an operation. These would range from certainty regarding ownership requirements under the Mining Charter, lengthy granting of required environmental licences, particularly water use licences, and the role of and relationship with host communities and, as our partner Jonathan Veeran describes, the manner in which mining companies develop their Social Compact with communities in order to derive shared value and sustainability long beyond the life of a mine.
Do you have a final message for our international readership?
KC: While we cannot escape that the South African mining industry does have deep-rooted challenges, it is heartening to see that there are stakeholders who want to work together to find a solution. I believe that the pandemic has shown us the importance and value of stakeholders working towards the same goal, and hope that this will continue for the benefit of the industry beyond Covid.
LL: I am very optimistic about mining in South Africa and think it is one of the industries that will continue to see growth. The recent announcement on private power generation will give the industry a boost and will be a turning point.