Although the relationship between mines and communities is generally perceived to be characterised by growing levels of mistrust, South Africa has seen breakthroughs, with mining companies establishing partnerships with communities, says SRK Consulting’s corporate social responsibility and development consultant Tim Hart.
“The narrative of treating communities as partners rather than beneficiaries has steadily found its way into the mining sector’s approach, but the difficulty has been to put that idea into action.”
Speaking at a World Bank event late last year, Hart highlighted the lack of effective platforms for mines to talk to communities as vital stakeholders. By contrast, he argued that there were a number of platforms for engagement with stakeholders like government and labour.
“There is the Social and Labour Plan framework and even the Mining Charter – an established instrument, even though it is sometimes in dispute – which give the mining sector avenues through which it can engage with government on development-related issues,” he said.
The chamber provided a space for mining companies – “the larger ones, at least” – to talk to one another about their respective efforts in pursuing development partnerships, with established structures to engage with labour, he said.
“All those elements are essentially in place, and it is not that difficult to form partnerships with institutions and organisations that already exist,” said Hart. He added that what was substantially lacking was the platform to talk to communities “as partners, not just as beneficiaries”.
There are several reasons why it has been difficult to form community partnerships, including the fact that even the definition of a community is often in dispute.
“Communities are often ill-defined; just because people live together in a village does not necessarily mean they are a community,” he said. “Sometimes they are defined as such because they owe allegiance to a particular traditional leader; but, in some cases, that traditional leadership might not be fully accepted.”
Hart suggested that it was not the mining sector’s place to meddle in community politics –rather, it should try to provide the platforms for partnership – to set up the spaces where partnerships can happen.
This thinking was a key element in the evolution of the Alchemy project, a unique approach to socioeconomic development pursued by mining major Anglo American Platinum (Amplats).
“The philosophy is to enable communities, through local development structures, to participate, using their own resources, in multiparty local development planning and mobilisation. It is not the silver bullet, but it provides some valuable thinking and experience about the platforms we can use.”
Alchemy has looked into mobilising corporate equity ownership in a way that brings benefits as directly as possible to the host and neighbouring communities. This has meant finding innovative ways for communities to organise themselves so that they can participate in formally registered local development trusts that hold shares in Amplats.
The formation of the trusts under this initiative, and the selection of initial trustees, follow years of engagement. Hart estimates that close to a year’s ‘person hours’ had been invested on a voluntary basis by community members assisting with a financial trust establishment. Further, months of formal processes will follow to find and select community trustees who are representative and accountable.
Hart commented that “perhaps the most important advance made by this work has been the structured and stepwise process to grow and empower these development trusts, so that they promote full community ownership”.
This has paved the way for an integrated and cooperative approach to the planning and execution of development around the mines, where the trusts can optimise their resources by collaborating with other development actors.
The process is painstaking and uses considerable resources in terms of time, effort and money. Given the current tones of disquiet in the sector, however, the question is whether the mining sector can afford not to invest in these bold and pioneering endeavours.