by Sally Braham

Doors open in mining for leaders to manage social risk

The growing focus on managing social and environmental impacts in the male-dominated mining sector is creating entirely new fields of opportunity for female professionals and leaders like Vassie Maharaj, who is now a Director, partner and Principal Consultant in stakeholder engagement and social risk management at the highly respected SRK Consulting, based in Johannesburg

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In EY’s 2016/2017 top ten business risks for the mining and metals sector, the social license to operate ranks fourth on the ranking. Maharaj’s contribution as a Stakeholder Engagement Practitioner is to work with clients to bridge the gap between them and their stakeholders. It is also to help achieve and maintain this fundamental social licence to operate, which is basic to companies’ very existence.

“Our role as practitioners is to help manage social risk and that means assisting companies to talk more effectively with those that their operations affect,” says Maharaj. “This means enhancing clients’ understanding that good relations with stakeholders is more than a ‘nice to have’; it is a business imperative underlying the sustainability of their operation.”

While she also applies her skills in sectors like energy, agriculture, water, infrastructure and oil and gas, the mining industry has been much in the news in recent years when it comes to social licence and social risk related issues.

In the past few years, hardly a quarter goes by without the news headlines announcing another mine brought to a standstill—or a new project stalled—by public protest or community discontent. Many such incidents have sadly been associated with violence and destruction and there is seldom a winner in the conflict. Investors lose money, governments lose potential revenue and communities lose the possibility of jobs and livelihoods. In most cases, she says, this outcome could be avoided—by a greater commitment and skill applied to the process of social engagement.

What the sector needed was a new cohort of skilled professionals to assist companies to comply with new legal requirements that involved engagement and consultation; this was an opportunity she grasped. The new political dispensation placed greater importance on the views of stakeholders like communities and labour—voices that had previously been marginal to decision-making. The skill sets to provide these services were only just being developed and many women were raising their hands to take up the challenge.

Her work has taken her all over the world; while South Africa has been at the forefront of codifying these social licence requirements into law, most countries have embraced the need for broader and more effective consultation before development decisions are made. Regarding her position as a woman in this predominantly male industry, she says she has never been made to feel less than equal to her male colleagues.

“I have always been impressed by the professionalism of the mining sector and the acceptance of any person who has value to offer,” she says. “I would certainly encourage young women not to shy away from mining; it is a large and complex sector with such a variety of opportunities to offer.”

Indeed, she was mentored by a woman—one of the pioneers in the field of public participation, which set her on the path on which she has been honing her skills since 1998.

Among the challenges in the early days of public participation interventions, she says, was that many clients embarked on these processes quite begrudgingly—placing added pressure on the practitioner to convince the client of the value of what could be achieved.

“You had to show the client that there was a long-term value for the company in what you were doing,” she says. “It was important to demonstrate that wasn’t just a compliance exercise in which a box had to be ticked. In fact, the penny often only dropped for some clients when they realised that development and maintenance of long-term relationships with stakeholders made business sense.”

While the concept of engagement is relatively simple—that is, to provide information and to gather feedback on an ongoing basis—the practicality of implementation becomes very complex.

“One of the challenges of this work in a country like South Africa is that economic inequality creates different worlds and life experiences, and outlooks can be so different within one geographic space,” she says.

But she made the most of the growth opportunities in the early days of her career when there was substantial work to be done at strategic and policy-making levels regarding the implementation of public participation strategies.

“One of my early roles was as a Stakeholder Engagement Process Manager, where I helped gather comments from government departments and the mining sector on the proposed guidelines for mining companies to apply for water use licences from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry,” she says. “This involved coordinating and recording dozens of one-on-one interviews, small group meetings and workshops; we also coordinated a workshop with Water Affairs personnel to pilot or test the proposed guidelines.”

Today, many mining companies are reaping the benefits of the steady growth in the capacity of the public participation profession. EY’s latest mining report notes that successful mineral companies have highlighted the value of operating in tandem with communities and have shown that it is possible to engage through mutual value creation.

It is also telling that consulting engineers of the stature of SRK Consulting place such emphasis on this discipline, and that, today, it is an increasingly vital component in the company’s arsenal of technical and scientific offerings.

Starting out her career with a BSc degree in biochemistry and physiology, Maharaj could have stayed in her successful trajectory as a Laboratory Manager, a position she had achieved by the age of 32. However, her interest in communication and marketing beckoned her in another direction and she began writing minutes and reports for public participation processes.

At first, even the concept of engaging with interested and affected parties and listening to public comments about a proposed development, was difficult to grasp, she says: “I wondered why this was so important, or why it was even necessary; but slowly, the significance of this vital process and profession began to sink in.”

So began her immersion into this new world within the mining sector, where women can discover vocations they could barely have imagined just a couple of decades ago.

“For young women who want to make a difference in the world, this field offers a range of interesting opportunities—as it requires a number of quite different skills,” she says. “Practitioners need to be good communicators and good listeners while having a strong sense of integrity and impartiality in these important processes. Being a consultant in an engineering firm has its own demands, as you are employed by a client but are expected to advise them honestly and without favour—not just take orders.”

It is also significant that Maharaj’s leadership role in the business brings her skill set to the highest levels of decision-making, alongside more established disciplines such as geology, geotechnical engineering, hydrology, mining and civil engineering.

“Business is now well acquainted with the need for social and environmental impact assessments when conducting projects and the bar is being constantly raised when it comes to compliance levels,” she says. “Keeping within the law is one thing but increasingly, companies have to look beyond the law to the evolving ‘industry good practice’ to keep up with trends.”

As many projects will look for funding from development finance institutions like the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation and the African Development Bank, these organisations have set their own standards and frameworks for lenders to follow.

“The ongoing evolution of concepts of social and environmental sustainability in mining and other industries creates opportunities for women to enter these sectors and attain leadership positions in roles and disciplines that were hardly considered just a few decades ago,” says Maharaj. “I look forward to many more of South Africa’s up-and-coming female professionals exploring these options and bringing their energy and skills to this vital field of work.”

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