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Grassy Park on the Cape Flats is far way from the nearest mine. Thus when Nathan Williams enrolled in a Chemical Engineering Degree at UCT in 1991, little did he know that it would take him on a 27 year journey into mining all around the continent. He took over as MD of Basil Read Mining in May 2018. His expedition to the top is not without incident in an industry that is undergoing tough times.
“Mining seduces you. You don’t think that you are not going to fall in love with it, with the dust, desolation and heavy equipment. But it pulls you towards it when you realize where the raw product is going and how it impacts of the lives of people who work in it”. Nathan Williams can sound romantic on mining, but in this nearly life long relationship he is no longer starry eyed. He is sanguine and practical on the industry he loves.
Mining comes with a contested legacy. The 21st century version of mining is far more responsible than its earlier iterations. It has to be responsible not just for the company and its shareholders, but also for the environment and communities it operates in.
Williams thinks that it is irresponsible not to do business responsibly.
The area where all can agree on is the area of safety. While heading up safety and sustainability at the Black Mountain mine in the Northern Cape town of Aggeneys, it was fatality free for 3 and a half years. He believes this was not done by enforcement, but through engagement.
The area where he takes the most pride is aversion of a strike at the Black Mountain copper mine in the shadow of the Marikana massacre in 2012. It was done through constructive engagement with the unions. By treating them as partners rather than advisories was the key success.
It is the engagement that changes the relationships, that transforms the culture in mining. He strongly believes that this should be the basis of mine management in the new age, where “Baas and Klaas” are clearly in the past.
“Managers need to look at more than production targets and safety records. We need a whole new form of metrics to measure our success. If we continue on this path we will continue to do the wrong things and marked correctly”
Williams is not just talk. He finished his masters degree in 2010 where he looked at the sustainability of mining. Working on the premise that all mines will close,his dissertation looks at ways to diversify the economic growth of the mining community from the very start. This way it limits the economic impact when mining does withdraw from the community at the end of the mine’s life cycle.
While the industry might be under pressure, it must not stop it from being progressive and forward thinking in the way it does business.
Nathan Williams forms an important part of the next generation of mining. He understands the challenges the industry faces and the nuance and responsibility that comes along with it.