While quarrying is a vital industry which is critical to the economy of every country, it can be damaging to the environment. Traditionally, the industry has sometimes been blamed for paying lip service to environmental compliance. However, the focus on the environment and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues at large, has grown in recent years and it is now a priority for quarrying companies as they constantly grasp the impact to the long-term sustainability of companies.
This is the view of ZN Geo Services’ Sithole, who has seen a growing consciousness of the criticality of putting environmental management at the core of operations. “There is a growing focus on environmental compliance in the industry. In the past, this was not the case. In the olden days, environmental compliance was done as and when convenient or once the regulatory authorities had issued pre-compliance notices,” she says.
The renewed focus on environmental issues is pleasing to note, she says, adding that even smaller quarrying companies are engaging the services of environmental consultants to make sure that their environmental ‘ducks’ are in a row.
“I am pleased to see that quarrying companies, apart from focusing on occupational health and safety, are becoming increasingly aware of the need for strong environmental management regimes,” she says.
Improving environmental performance requires an appropriate level of understanding and skills which are needed to ensure that companies understand their obligations. To help quarrying companies be at the top of their environmental game, Sithole founded ZN Geo Services, and the company has grown its footprint over the years, with projects and clients throughout southern Africa.
A geologist (BSc Honours – UKZN) and environmentalist (MSc – University of Free State), Sithole began her career in the industry as a trainee geologist at leading construction materials provider, AfriSam, in November 2011, before moving to Idwala Carbonates as an environmental officer in 2015. Driven by her passion to help the industry up its environmental ‘ante’, she decided to establish ZN Geo Services in 2017, and has never looked back.
ZN Geo Services offers both geology- and environmental-related services. On the geology front, the company helps companies with mineral exploration, mine planning, compilation of mineral resource statements and general geological consulting.
The environmental portfolio is extensive and includes Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), prospecting right applications, mining permit applications, mining right applications, Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) Section 11 transfers, MPRDA Section 102 applications, environmental control officer functions, water use licence applications, auditing, compilation of rehabilitation plans and facilitation of public consultations.
The majority of the company’s projects are currently in the quarrying fraternity. “My career began and blossomed in the quarrying sector. I was so fortunate to be afforded an opportunity to work my way up from a trainee to a professional geologist within AfriSam, which had more than 15 aggregate quarries nationally at the time,” she says. “In this role, I largely performed mine planning functions for various quarries.”
The exposure to the quarrying industry during the early days of her career planted her love for the industry. “My first mine manager, Mpho Dibakoane, imparted extensive knowledge and guidance in mineral processing, plant- and screen-setting, among other functions, which at the time did not seem to be part of my scope, but has since made me an overall miner with a deep understanding of all the processes, from drilling and blasting to load and haul and processing.”
Her time at the Idwala Group, which owns multiple industrial mineral operations, further exposed her to other minerals such as pyrophyllite, thus broadening her knowledge base.
Commenting on some flagship projects she has undertaken thus far, Sithole says one which stands out entailed the imparting of rehabilitation awareness to unskilled and semi-skilled farm workers in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
“This was quite fulfilling,” she says. “In fact, any project that involves any type of teaching or creating awareness warms my heart. If I was not a geologist/environmentalist, I would probably be a teacher. My passion for teaching is probably why I particularly enjoy community engagements and the public consultation scope of EIAs or auditing.”
Women in mining
While greater strides have been made in the industry to promote a more diverse, collaborative mining sector, there is still so much more to be done to afford women the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Sithole believes that there is need to unlearn several employment biases that have hindered the progress or created a glass ceiling for women in the mining sector.
“Revisiting company policies is a great start, but there is a greater need to ‘walk the talk’ in order for change to take place. This needs committed people who can champion the cause, otherwise progressing women in mining will become a ‘pie in the sky’ idea for generations to come. This does not discount the fact that some notable strides have been made, but there is still a long way to go,” concludes Sithole.