Depressed commodity prices, the continuing economic downturn and pervasive illegal mining activities, have been hitting South Africa’s mining sector hard. Cost cutting plans, retrenchments and even mine closures are the order of the day.

While stimulating commodity prices and resuscitating the global economy are beyond the South African mining industry’s scope, the sector has no choice but to find a way to deal with illegal mining activities that are carried out without regard to issues of health, safety, and human rights.

Previously illegal mining activities were limited to abandoned mining operations where lax closure controls had enabled informal mining entrepreneurs to eke out a living re-mining old workings. Increasingly illegal mining is now taking place at operational mines with gangs violently fighting back against mine owners attempts to reclaim their legal operations.

Gangs operated by sophisticated syndicates have also reportedly taken to kidnapping informal mine workers underground, holding them captive for weeks at a time and forcing them to work for free. This is slave labour.  It would not be permitted above ground, so why is it allowed to take place below ground?

Combating illegal mining activities head-on is clearly not working as syndicates continue to extend their reach and to professionalise their activities in order to maximise their profits.  In addition, the next round of mine worker retrenchments is only likely to boost the ranks of illegal mining entrepreneurs making a living off South Africa’s mines. If something is not done to transform the current mining sector model, illegal mining will be the final death knell for South Africa’s ailing mining sector.

The formal mining industry needs to have a radical rethink about its current operating structures and find a way to incorporate different levels of mining entrepreneurs within their organisations. Legal opportunities for informal mining entrepreneurs that do not compete with formal mining activities need to be identified and built into the larger formal mining framework. These informal mining entrepreneurs could be supported by the larger mining entity while at the same time acting as a buffer against the spread of illegal mining syndicates that are already prepared to do battle to continue their illegal mining operations.

At present the pattern of illegal mining that is being allowed to persist is creating new chains of corruption that will be difficult to eradicate. These include the recruitment of legal miners to provide support to illegal mining operations by smuggling food and supplies underground or by renting out their access cards, policemen who lie in wait to grab the ill-gotten gains of informal mining entrepreneurs as they emerge into the light from their weeks spent working underground, and mine security officials who are bribed to turn a blind eye to illegal mining activities.

The mining sector needs to fight fire with fire. This requires being innovative in identifying solutions that will empower informal mining entrepreneurs and make them feel that they have a stake in legal mining operations. It won’t be easy, and will require co-operation from the mining companies, trade unions and government, all of whom have competing agendas. However, if compromises aren’t made and solutions identified, South Africa’s mining sector will find itself hijacked.


The announcement of the appointment of members to the Geomatics Council by Gugile Nkwinti, the minister of rural development and land reform, has been broadly welcomed by the geomatics community. A revisit to a paper by former PLATO president, Paul Marshall, entitled “The way forward for PLATO as a statutory body in the transitionary period towards the new SA Geomatics Council” provides some answers as to what lies ahead.

The first meeting of the Geomatics Council needs to take place within 30 days of the 22 May 2015 publication in the Government Gazette, and this date will then be the commencement date of the new Geomatics Profession Act. Members of the Geomatics Council have been appointed for four years as opposed to the previous council term of two years.

The main difference between the new Act and the 1984 Act is that the new Geomatics Council will becontrolled by the minister while the PLATO council was answerable to the minister. The Geomatics Council is required to meet twice a year as opposed to the previous arrangement of once a year, and it will be funded to a much larger extent by the department. The PLATO council was self-funded and was therefore largely independent of state funding. The new Geomatics Council is obliged to honour all existing commitments made by the PLATO Council.

One of the first new responsibilities of the Geomatics Council will be the publishing, within 90 days of its first meeting, of a code of conduct for its members. Until this new code of conduct is drafted and approved by the minister, the existing PLATO rules will remain in place. Should a conflict between the new Act and the existing rules occur, the Act will prevail. Marshall warned in his paper that while this arrangement will alleviate some of the immediate pressure to draft the code of conduct, it could lead to this matter not being treated with the necessary urgency.

The current Education Advisory Committee is likely to remain in place until a suitable Education and Training Committee is established. Marshall advised in his paper that this committee will need suitable and sufficient permanent members, and will need the backing of the minister to properly carry out its functions, especially the two yearly accreditation of qualifications at institutions offering surveying, mine surveying and geo-information science.

The establishment of a continuing professional development (CPD) programme is a specified duty of the new Geomatics Council and as such it will have much more authority when it comes to enforcing participation in the CPD programme.

A major challenge for the new Geomatics Council is that the Geomatics Act provides for the publishing of a recommended tariff of fees.  While this has generally been viewed as a positive development, the drafting of a “One Tariff Fits All” for the geomatics industry was identified by Marshall as being one of the more difficult tasks to be faced by the new Geomatics Council.


Lucia Pelser and Meshack Thusi

Meshack Thusi is a third year student at the University of Johannesburg studying electrical engineering. Life for him has been a struggle but he is determined to make something of himself. Setting out from the village of Zwelishane in Mpumalanga with R3000 in cash earned by his street vendor mother, Julia Mkhonto, he headed off to Gauteng and the University of Johannesburg. A rural boy from a poor family, he knew this was his only chance to make something of himself.


Despite having no income he managed to get himself registered at the university but his attempts to obtain funding from the NSFAS, the South African government student loan and bursary scheme, were fruitless. A fellow student from his home town tried to provide support by letting Meshack sleep over whenever the landlord was away and by sharing what little food he had.

Aside from having no food and accommodation, Meshack also had no money for textbooks, stationery and the other sundries many of his fellow students take for granted. He resorted to sleeping on campus, hanging around until late in the evening before climbing through open windows to find a safe place to sleep for the night.

His story could have been yet another variant on the student drop-out, but UJ’s engineering faculty had been influenced by the good-hearted generosity of former personal assistant, Lucia Pelser, to start paying attention to the overall well-being of its students.

At 10 pm one night, Lucia received a phone call from Dr. Norah Clarke who had been going through first year survey forms filled out as part of the university’s First Year Experience programme which aims to assist students with the transition from school to university. The survey is intended to provide details on how first year students are coping with the transition, and what Norah read on one of the survey forms disturbed her greatly.  She phoned Lucia to alert her to Meshack’s situation…

Lucia couldn’t sleep that night knowing that one of her students was struggling so.  A self-appointed mother to the engineering students at UJ, she had created her own position as Relationship Co-ordinator through her own kind-heartedness. All her life Lucia has cared deeply for those around her, and the death of her two sons and her daughter being seriously injured in a car accident has made her even more determined to help others. “It’s better to give than to take,” she says.

“Lucia is showing us the true version of humanity,” says Meshack. “I don’t want to disappoint her. We engineers are privileged to have Miss Lucia… it seems easy because we have her.“

Trained as a graphic designer Lucia took a position at UJ as a personal assistant to Prof. Wimpie Clarke at the electrical engineering department. The well-being of the students she encountered quickly became a major concern to her. Soon she was identifying quiet places for the students to study, helping them find suitable accommodation and bringing them food from home.  Her activities came to the attention of her boss, who told her to stop her “underground activities” and take them above ground. People, he said, needed to know what she was doing so that she could help more students.

Once word got out that there was a “mother” in the electrical engineering department, more students went to Lucia for help and in 2010 Prof. Wimpie Clarke pushed her to go full time with her “mothering” activities. In 2012, following appeals from the other engineering departments, Lucia was moved to the Faculty of Engineering where she could be in a position to help all engineering students, and not just the electrical engineers. She was appointed as Relationship Co-ordinator for all engineering students at both the university’s Auckland Park and Doornfontein campuses, overseeing the well-being of over 4000 engineering students.

Returning to Meshack’s story… Lucia still remembers the time she gave him his first textbook, a second-hand one. “He sat there with it, rubbing his fingers along the covers, slowly up and down. The next day he was in my office, his precious textbook in a plastic bag. I handed him an old conference bag to keep his book in. It was his only bag… when he got mugged later that year in Brixton, he pleaded with his attackers not to steal the bag that Miss Lucia had given him…”

“Meshack goes through tough times. Times when he goes hungry,” continues Lucia, “but he is determined to get his degree, that is why I will go the extra mile for him.”

“Everything is possible if you put your mind to it… despite your circumstances,” interjects Meshack. As a young boy growing up in Zwelishane, near Nelspruit, he knew that he wanted to make something of himself. “It’s hard,” he says, “for youth in the rural areas to find a way out.” Encouraged by his Maths teacher Mr. Mandlaka at Mandlesive High School, who passed away last year, and his Principal and Physics teacher Mr. Mlombo, Meshack studied hard. “I wanted to be involved in doing something big… designing things…” he says.

Meshack initially registered as a mechanical engineering student, but once his personal circumstances had been stabilised his experience at university saw him being drawn towards an electrical engineering degree. But before altering his academic path, Meshack had to get past Lucia who was concerned about the motivation for this change. On hearing that his decision was soundly based on his interest in telecommunications and automation, she gave her approval and support for this change in vocation.

These days Meshack is a third-year student with dreams of working at SASOL and travelling the world. Lucia has other plans for him though. She is encouraging him to continue with a Masters degree once his four-year engineering degree is complete. Meshack has other concerns too. He wants to help his mother, and provide her with support. “For the sake of my Mum, I need to get working,” he says. “She is so proud of me… seeing me and my laptop,” he says, adding that their roles have changed, with him being treated as an elder of the family.

For now, Meshack’s financial position is stable. EE Publishers, has provided R25 000 towards his 3rd year tuition fees, with the remainder sponsored by Plasserail.

Chris Yelland, managing director of EE Publishers, says the company is proud to be associated with UJ’s Faculty of Engineering. “I am delighted our donation of R25 000 is being used to assist Meshack continue and complete his studies. We are looking forward to receiving feedback on his progress. We also challenge other companies to get involved in supporting students in need at UJ and at other tertiary institutions.”

Aside from working on his studies, Meshack is helping Lucia to “mother” his fellow engineering students in need. He gives talks to first year students. “You think life is hard,” he tells them, “but look at me… anything is possible.” He also assists with the mentoring programme, helping first years with time management and the correct study methods.

Lucia says there is a big need for money to assist students who have managed on their own so far but who need help. It is four months into 2015, and she has helped 17 of her “kids” get bursaries, another seven find vacation jobs, and nine graduates find employment. She is also working on finding bursaries for 37 electrical engineering students, from first through to fourth year.

Her work is starting to overflow into other faculties at the University of Johannesburg, and also to other universities. Lucia is happy to share her knowledge and experiences of helping her engineering students. “It’s my passion,” she says. “I want to be part of their lives.”

“She is here for us 24/7,” adds Meshack. “Our lives will never be the same because of her.”

It’s no surprise to hear that Lucia was awarded the 2014 UJ Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Award for Service Beyond the Normal Call of Duty. All strength to her and her students.

As South Africa enters its worst drought in over 20 years, the balance of power in the food security versus land reform debate has shifted fundamentally.  Speaking at the 2015 Grain SA Congress in early March, the  Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Senzeni Zokwana expressed concern over the impact of drought on food production for 2015 and 2016 stating  that  “the scale of the drought and its impact will change quite a few of our priorities”.

As of March 2015, the maize crop is likely to be 32% lower than last year and the sunflower crop 31% lower. An Emergency National Drought Task Team Meeting has been set up to discuss the drought conditions in the affected parts of the country and other drought risk management related matters within the sector, with feedback expected shortly.

The expected drop in the 2015 maize yield and the anticipated higher maize prizes, will have an additional impact on food security as maize is a basic input for the production of other food items e.g. red meat , chicken, eggs and milk, leading to associated price increases for basic food products. The power crisis has also contributed to (and will continue to contribute to) heightened food production costs via load shedding and raised energy costs, which will in turn have further additional impacts on South Africa’s food security.

The Regulation of Land Holdings Bill, which President Zuma spoke about in his State of the Nation Address and which Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti said would be passed into law by September 2015, has the potential to further negatively impact South Africa’s food security via its proposal to limit agricultural land holdings to 12 000 hectares. Farmers have been quick to point out that the 12 000 hectare limit would have a dire impact on certain types of farmers in certain locations i.e. a sheep farmer in the Karoo. Fortunately the agriculture minister has also been quick to re-iterate that nothing is cast in stone on this matter and that more debate is needed.

In addition, the ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe reiterated a number of times at a land reform imbizo held on 26 February 2015 that the ANC fully recognised the importance of food security and the role of commercial farmers in ensuring food security. He also made it clear that the ANC was not in favour of changes that would destroy the agricultural sector.

While land reform does need to be addressed, it is vital that it should not be carried out at the expense of food security. Land reform initiatives need to enhance food security for South Africans by developing effective support programmes for land redistribution beneficiaries, and by supporting joint ventures between successful farmers and new-entrants. Monitoring programmes too are vital for tracking the progress of land claims, the effectiveness of beneficiary support programmes, the provision of adequate supporting infrastructure, and ensuring that adequate crop reserves have been retained for times of drought.

The geospatial community – whether via surveying, GIS, remote sensing, and/or mapping  – has the skills to ensure that all of this gets done. The powers-that-be, the ultimate decision-makers, the ministers, the director-generals, need to be made aware of the super-powers that reside within the geospatial sector so that they can adequately fund and make effective inter-departmental,  co-ordinated use of these skills.

It is a national disgrace that parts of Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane experienced water supply disruption in recent weeks, and government’s response to this unprecedented situation has been singularly disappointing.

At a media briefing on 26 September 2014, the Minister of Water and Sanitation,  Nomvula Mokonyane, said there was a need to move beyond the “blame game”, and a joint statement released by the department and Rand Water on 30 September 2014 stated that the interruptions had “largely been as a result of vandalism and circumstances beyond our control.”

I put it to the minister that this is not a game, and that the circumstances are not beyond the department’s control. This is a matter of national security, and the perpetrator was not a terrorist grouping but rather the very organisations legally tasked with the responsibility of regulating the storage and supply of water for Gauteng, as well as the rest of South Africa.

The Department of Water and Sanitation is well aware of the obstacles standing in the way of its goal to provide effective, sustainable municipal water services. The department’s own reports indicate that these include relying on a workforce with an increasing lack of technical skills, aging water infrastructure, increasing investment requirements, inadequate water resources, rising energy costs, competing political priorities within municipalities, and poor water services planning and prioritisation amongst others.

A 2013 Strategic Overview of the Water Sector in South Africa prepared by the then Department of Water Affairs reveals that few water service authorities practice proper management of their water services infrastructure and as a result there are regular service failures resulting in non-functionality of schemes, customer dissatisfaction, threats to health and financial losses. In addition, a presentation by Department of Water Affairs’ representatives at the 2013 World Water Week in Stockholm identifies Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, and Tshwane as being “highly vulnerable” water service authorities on a Municipal Strategic Self-Assessment of Water Services (MuSSA) vulnerability index of 17 priority municipalities.

In view of this, surely the Department of Water and Sanitation and Rand Water should be operating on high alert, and planning ahead to deal with possible scenarios capable of having a detrimental impact on Gauteng’s integrated water network. Black outs are not unusual occurrences, and neither is cable theft. The impact of incidents of this nature on the water supply system need to be fully understood, and contingency plans need to be developed to minimise the risk.

There are ample technologies – geospatial, mechanical and automative – available to facilitate the effective and efficient management of the country’s water supply, and these should have triggered alarm bells when pumping stopped and Gauteng’s reservoirs started emptying. It is not apparent though whether these technologies are being used in our integrated water management systems. Were alarms triggered? And what action was taken if these alarms were triggered?

The Department of Water and Sanitation and Rand Water have been entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring and managing our water resources and systems. Taking responsibility for what happened and ensuring that it does not happen again, is certainly within their control.

Not surprisingly, land surveying, engineering surveying and geomatics have been identified as scarce skills by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in its “Skills for and through SIPs” report. Occupational teams preparing the report first analysed the 18 Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPs) making up the National Infrastructure Plan, identified the projected scarce skills and provided suggestions on how to address the skills scarcity.

With regard to schooling, the teams suggested that numeracy programmes be introduced at primary school to insure that all secondary school entrants have the basic numeracy skills in place. They propose that Maths and Physical Science be given priority, that teachers undergo training in their subjects, and that teachers be rewarded for successful outputs. They advise that an equivalent of Maths Higher/Standard Grade be re-introduced in preference to Maths Literacy. They also recommend that Senior Certificate results, in particular for Maths and Physical Science, not be adjusted to achieve a higher pass rate, and that matric outcomes be better aligned with higher education requirements.

In terms of theory, the report suggests that increased funding be made available to accommodate higher enrolment numbers and to provide the necessary infrastructure. It recommends that salaries for lecturing staff be increased by at least 25%, that additional staff be employed, and that minimum qualification requirements for lecturing staff at universities of technology (UoTs) be dropped while simultaneously developing their capacity at a postgraduate level.

The professional occupational teams advise that major workshops be convened with industry to determine the required qualifications and courses, as well as the most sought after graduate attributes. They also suggest that institutions needing to roll out new courses be encouraged to start working with the DHET and industry on content.

The report proposes that the most effective teaching tools and methods be identified, and then be introduced nationally. It calls for student tutoring support to be expanded, and for numeracy programmes be rolled out at UoTs. That summer/winter schools be introduced and that “killer subjects” be repeated in each semester. It further proposes that admission policies, assessment methods and targets be reviewed with a view to improving throughput, and that the number of bursaries for SIP Professionals should be expanded.

However, if the proposals outlined in this report are to have any chance of sustainable success, it is essential that the Department of Basic Education get its house in order, as this is where the rot first sets in.

Primary school children need to be taught by teachers who know their subject matter and who are held accountable for their output. Primary school teachers must be allocated reasonably-sized classes and provided with the necessary tools and resources. Struggling learners need to be given more assistance in the primary stages, and promoting pupils who do not meet the required standard has to stop.

Solutions can be devised to assist students at secondary and tertiary level who are not up to scratch, but sustainably enhancing our SIPs skills capacity, for both professional and non-professional occupations, requires a refocusing of our primary school education system, and a clear determination to get education working from the bottom up.

The South African geospatial industry needs to participate in the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) regulatory process driven by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA). This process seeks to govern the use of UAS in South Africa with the initial establishment of interim regulations in 2015. By participating in this process, the geospatial industry and its representatives will be able to ensure that the requirements of the sector, whether UAS suppliers, UAS operators, data collectors and/or data users, are met by the interim regulations and ultimately the final regulations.

Like it or not, drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS), or UAS are here to stay. As technology has advanced, these systems have become increasingly sophisticated. These days UAS feature lightweight airframes and advanced propulsion systems with built-in accelerometers, gyroscopes, GPS and altimeters. They are capable of carrying payloads that include high resolution/hyperspectral/lidar cameras, and can operate for significant distances, at high altitudes, out of line-of-sight, and are efficient to operate and require little maintenance.

With the increasing popularity of UAS, it is not surprising that a major concern for civil aviation bodies around the world is the safe and responsible operation of UAS. Few will disagree that this needs to be addressed, but many worldwide are concerned about the lengthy delays in regulating their use.

The Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International (AUVSI) predicts that the economic impact of integrating UAS into US air space will result in an economic impact of US$13,6-billion in the first three years resulting in the creation of 34 000 manufacturing jobs and more than 70 000 jobs in the first three years of integration. AUVSI is of the opinion that every year that the US delays, it loses over US$10-billion in potential economic impact. While these figures may not be as great in South Africa, they will probably still be very significant and it seems a great pity that South Africans are being held back in their attempts to get this potential growth sector up and running.

Clearly, it is vital that the geospatial industry, in the form of individuals, companies and associations, gets involved in the UAS regulatory process to ensure that the regulations cover the needs that the geospatial sector will require of this burgeoning UAS technology.  It is essential that the regulations do not impinge unnecessarily on the potential quality of data collected by today’s UAS, and the UAS of the future. Already issues regarding night flights, out of line-of-sight flights and payloads are a concern, and these are factors that will impact on UAS operators seeking to service the geospatial sector.

By participating actively in this regulatory process, the South African geospatial sector will be well placed to educate its members on the responsible handling and optimal use of UAS. Keeping in touch with developments in this arena will also ensure that the geospatial industry is well positioned to take advantage of the potential economic benefit of UAS technologies.

For additional information see: Unmanned aerial operator body discusses way forward

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