South African Chamber of Mines President Mxolisi Mgojo talks about the industry’s dark legacy and its commitment to move forward
In 2012, a mineworkers’ strike at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, South Africa turned into a conflict between employees, unions, mine security and police – 44 people died in a week, 34 in a single confrontation.
The tragedy’s roots lie in the complex legacy of the country’s 150-year history of modern mining. Colonial and apartheid-era mines sourced cheap black migrant labor from across the subcontinent to benefit white-owned business. Today, the country is still dealing with this legacy. South Africa’s large mines employ tens of thousands of people, across multiple shafts, speaking dozens of languages. Levels of education differ from semi-skilled laborers to tech savvy youngsters and relatively small teams of management professionals. Many workers spend their shifts deep underground, unreachable by phone or computer. In this context, engaging employees and rebuilding trust requires more than a new style of values-based leadership and innovative techniques – it means taking on 150 years of history.
Brunswick recently interviewed Mxolisi Mgojo, CEO of Exxaro Resources, a black-owned coal mining company in South Africa. He also serves as President of the South African Chamber of Mines.
Mining is a complex industry, with a number of employees in remote locations. How do you bring employees along with you?
It’s incredibly complex. Our underground workers don’t have an email address, let alone a computer. I have found that if you want to bring dramatic change into an organization, there’s no better substitute than standing in front of your employees and telling them the story yourself.
But how practical is this? How do you manage it?
It’s not easy. At Exxaro, our former CEO organized twice-yearly sessions where we created an open platform for communication at our various operations. We use a big space – an amphitheater or auditorium. But we have 24-hour operations, so we have to repeat the session to reach our employees working different shifts. While we have multiple languages spoken in our operations, we’ve realized that it’s essential to convey information in people’s mother tongue, so we also have a number of translators present at every session. I believe people value the opportunity to ask me questions directly. It’s a completely open platform, and we answer every question that is asked.
But these CEO roadshows are only twice a year. How do you reach your workforce at other times?
Industrial theater is effective, especially if it’s done with humor. People like theatrics and they like to see a show. Theater allows us to convey important messages about values and safety. We are, of course, also looking at how best to harness technology to reach our people, but there are limitations. We are working on an exciting new platform which allows us to send creative video messages across smartphones, but a significant proportion of our workforce don’t have smartphones. Ultimately, none of these techniques work in isolation. It’s about comprehensive follow up. You want to show your people respect, that they matter and are valued and are hearing from you on a constant basis.
South African mining companies have been accused of relegating the role of employee communication to the unions. Is that accurate?
That was absolutely the case in the past, and we’re working hard to change it. We have had to be emphatic to our unions that ultimately, workers are employees of the mining company, and that it’s not the role of the union leadership to dictate with whom the company management can communicate.
It hasn’t been without complexity, and in our attempts to change the system, unions have felt that the mining company was usurping their role. But unions, rightly, have their own agenda, and that is not always aligned to that of the company. It’s up to us to communicate the company’s message and engage directly with our employees.