Intenational Mining’s South African technology and services focus is one of the articles in the January issue. Among the many burning issues on which South Africa’s mining industry is currently reflecting is the way it talks to its workers and their communities – and the way it listens to them.In the wake of recent mine violence and strikes, there is a growing need for a more effective engagement between mine management and local stakeholders, according to Nancy Coulson of the Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry (CSMI) at the University of the Witwatersrand.“This is by no means a new issue for mines,” said Coulson, “but recent events have shown how much we still need to learn, and how much better we need to become at dealing with the deep and complex issues between mines, communities, workers and other stakeholders in this sector.”Getting mines to help build and diversify their local economies, for instance, has been one of the aims of government mineral policy for some time. She said that CSMI research is showing that a fundamental shift is already underway in how mines see and direct their socio-economic contribution to local economies.“In the past, a mine would largely have taken its own decisions on what projects would be initiated or supported in communities on its doorstep,” said Coulson. “Today, mines’ Social and Labour Plans require engagement with local municipalities and other stakeholders. Mining operations are also recognising that socio-economic investments may be made more wisely if they pool their resources with other mines in their locality. This would require a change to the present regulatory framework and is an indication of the significant strides forward.”But this is the start of a long process, a key aspect of which is to build knowledge and awareness among senior mine management and professionals, to take the industry beyond the check-list approach to community engagement.“This is a learning curve that many managers have gone through on other important sustainability issues, such as mine safety and environmental impact,” she said. “While there are managers and experts dedicated to each priority area on a mine, top management must be knowledgeable to the extent that they can pull these priorities together into an effective corporate strategy.”The good news, according to Coulson, is that that there is a growing body of working knowledge on stakeholder engagement – in the mining sector and beyond – that is helpful for this kind of work, and South African practitioners are benefiting from the progress made by local mines.The CSMI – which trains and educates managers, practitioners and regulators in various aspects of sustainable development – is developing a module for the MSc Mining Engineering course, looking specifically at issues of socio-economic development and stakeholder engagement.“Our concern is that learning in the field of community and stakeholder development has often been limited to a fairly low-level, hands-on approach that tries to provide simple steps to success,” she said. “We need to take this to a higher level, to help decision-makers to understand the systems at play in their workplace, the legacy that underpins our conditions today and the profound nature of inequality in our society that compounds our circumstances.”She insists that while there is no ‘right way’ to do this, there are certainly better ways – and the future of the industry will in part be dependent on how well mines can open up effective communication channels and engage with pressing issues outside their boundary fences.“It’s important to understand, for instance, the links between how stakeholders are engaged inside a company and what happens outside with a community,” said Coulson. “These two worlds are so inter-related that they can’t always be dealt with separately by different departments within a company; management needs to be alive to where worker issues overlap with community issues – and where these in turn link to questions of environmental impact.”Miners’ reporting on sustainable development can gloss over the real difficulties faced at operational level in meeting compliance targets; these unresolved issues, which frequently include living conditions and housing, then tend to bubble under the surface until they reach bursting point.Getting deeper into the complex challenges of community engagement will foster understanding and guide better mine-community interventions, she said, but long term impact cannot be achieved by mines alone. It is vital that initiatives are “institutionalised”, to carry them forward in a sustainable way.“The involvement of government is one of the most common ways that mines can leverage their community projects and boost both impact and longevity,” said Coulson. “It is certainly a problem that local government often does not have the capacity to deliver on their mandates to communities on the outskirts of mines, but this is part of the landscape that mines engage and need to help find solutions.”A central theme of this journey towards better stakeholder engagement, she said, is that better partnerships make more of an impact on fighting poverty and advancing development. This outcome will not be achieved by following a proven recipe, but by fostering critical and engaged thinking among management and other role players.The Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry (CSMI) is a centre of excellence in Africa for the training and education of managers, practitioners and regulators in sustainable development. It was formed in 2004 as a partnership between the School of Mining Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand and mining companies BHP Billiton, Lonmin and AngloGold Ashanti.