Council for Geoscience Annual Report 2008/09

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Mineral Resources and Energy

29 October 2009
Chairperson: Mr F Gona (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Council for Geoscience (CGS) briefed the Committee on its Annual Report for 2008/09. It outlined the mandate, to undertake geoscience research over the whole country, to develop knowledge of geology both onshore and off-shore, to conduct investigations and render specialised services to the public and private sectors. It was also responsible for collection and storage of geoscience data and managed the National Geosciences Library, the National Geological Museum, and the National Seismic Network. The Council had shown steady growth from 2005, under new management. The scorecards and performance achievements were set out, which showed that there was delivery, but the question remained as to how sustainable this would be. The Council showed a small commercial surplus, but it was later highlighted that it would need to increase the funding from the fiscus or its own commercial work in order to fully perform all the functions it set out to do, and to fund the purchase of all needed equipment. Although it had ISO accreditation, the work to achieve this meant that some scientists were being taken away from their core tasks of research or mentoring. There was encouragement to staff to register for MSc and PhD degrees, though the downside to this was that they could more easily then be lured away by higher salaries in the private or global sectors. Several slides on the mapping programmes were tabled, with an explanation of what type of mapping revealed and how it would be used. The South African Seismic Network provided continuous and ongoing earthquake detection coverage, which it was hoped would eventually be able to detect not only earthquakes but also the earth tremors occurring either naturally or from mining activity which caused such a high death toll in South African mines. The problems with dolomite and sinkholes, particularly in Gauteng, were explained. The problems around disused mining shafts, and water pollution from mining, were also described, and it was highlighted that those probably most affected were informal settlements that had sprung up around such mines. CGS emphasised that there was little it could do to enforce compliance with its recommendations at present. Assessments were being done on the potential for storage of carbon dioxide, in liquid form, in deep aquifers, unmineable coal seams and depleted oil and gas fields. The international collaborative efforts were outlined. It was noted that the World Cup for Geology was to take place in 2016 in South Africa. The efforts to promote human capital development through training, and the staffing profile, were outlined. It was finally indicated that the challenges included insufficient funding, which hindered the delivery on the CGS mandate and also the training of young scientists.

Members asked a number of questions about what the Council could do in regard to dolomite, when it became dangerous, what was being done about building of houses on such areas, and what was done about water pollution and decanting in mines. Several Members agreed that rockfalls and earth tremors were causing too many deaths in mines and questioned whether the Council was not in a position to give early warnings and whether the failure to give warnings should not be criminalised. Members also queried what assistance was being given to small scale miners, called for further clarity on carbon dioxide storage, what was done to replace old scientific equipment. They also asked for amplification on the role of the Board and attendance of Board members, retention of staff, including those who had been granted bursaries, whether there were regional offices, what was being done to create jobs, and the Council’s visibility. Members also asked what being done to secure new discoveries of minerals, especially gold.

Meeting report

Council for Geoscience (CGS) Annual Report 2008/09
Mr Thibedi Ramontja, Chief Executive Officer, Council for Geoscience, introduced the presentation. He stated that the mandate for the Council for Geoscience (CGS) emanated from the Geoscience Act, Act 100 of 1993, and that the Council was to undertake geoscience research over the whole country, to compile and develop knowledge of geology both onshore and off-shore (marine), conduct investigations and render specialised services to the public and private sectors and the State, in the form of the various State departments and entities. It must also collect and curate all geoscience data and managed the National Geoscience facilities such as the National Geosciences Library, which was open to the public, the National Geological Museum, which was a very important facility in Pretoria, and the National Seismic Network which operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Mr Ramontja tabled a slide setting out CGS statutory and commercial performance, and he pointed out that the graph dipped until 2003, when the new management was instituted, whereafter there was a period of stabilization, but from 2005 there was steady growth in the programme index, the scientific activities, and spectacular growth in the commercial income graph.

In his slide of CGS performance, he indicated the stakeholder/customer focus, and the targets measured against the scorecard, and indicated that the 2008/09 performance exceeded the targets set. This showed that the CGS was delivering. However, the question must be asked how sustainable was such delivery.

He then set out the economic and financial growth, and pointed out that the commercial surplus, at R1.57 million, was low, but submitted that the state of the economy was a factor beyond the control of the GCS.

Mr Ramontja indicted that the objective of CGS was to achieve ISO accreditation. However, he stated that to do so meant that scientists were being taken off their prime or daily tasks of research and the mentoring of young scientists. Therefore the ISO compliance was a double-edged sword. He also pointed out that the key objective to drive preferential procurement under Black Economic Empowerment, or procurement through Historically Disadvantaged Individuals, showed disappointing results, as the major item of equipment was purchased from Germany.

In terms of learning and growth opportunities, Mr Ramontja stated that there was a emphasis on encouraging the young scientists to enroll for Masters degrees, as even honours degrees did not necessarily prepare a person for research. He pointed out that the target was to have 23 persons enrolled for MSc and / or PHD degrees and that 33 had done so. However, this too, was a double edged sword as such persons were then open to being poached away by other entities, usually in the private sector. He noted that the training of scientists usually lasted over 5 to 7 years, to be fully effective, and that there was a world wide shortage of such qualified persons. However, he was pleased to be able to report that much had been achieved in raising the number of both black and female members of the pool or potential pool of scientists.

Mr Ramontja tabled a slide on the National Geological Mapping Programme. He pointed out that 98% of South Africa had been mapped geologically, but that as methods and technology of geological mapping improved, along with the ability of mapping operators, the mapping would need to be brought up to date. He illustrated the completed areas, those being compiled, and those that were set out for the future. The next step in the process was the geological mapping of the sea floors in the adjacent oceans.

He then noted that more detailed scale maps had been printed for most of Gauteng and the Port Elizabeth Coega area, and maps were being completed for Saldanha, the Cape Town area, George / Knysna area, the Wild Coast, and areas of Gauteng and Limpopo. These were extremely important as they enabled the planners to determine the need for and the impact upon infrastructure.

The National Geochemical Mapping Programme was very important as new minerals and new deposits of mineral were being identified. He illustrated those areas which had previous coverage, those areas that were being done in the current financial year and those planned for the outer years of the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF). He submitted that these maps were  also important in determining the environmental impact and for analysis on pollution. He cautioned that although such maps were for sale, and were seemingly expensive, they were not sold on a cost recovery basis. Instead, the value of achieving the information depicted on the maps was invaluable for future development, be it industrial, commercial, or residential.

The Geophysical Mapping Programme revealed the physical properties of areas and was thus also very important. It was now performed aerially, which was a more result- and cost-effective way, that could also more easily identify the existence and extent of mineral deposits. This was very critical, and GSC was working in close collaboration with the Departments of Water Affairs and Mineral Resources.

He then produced two slides of Ramokokskreel, reflecting the vegetation and the outlook of the area, and illustrated how the hidden ore had been detected and outlined.

His next slide reflected the South African National Seismic Network. There was continuous and ongoing earthquake detection coverage, as depicted upon the slide, and this was an avenue of research in line with the Tsunami developments in the Pacific Ocean area, and was being expanded. It was hoped that not only would this cover earthquakes but also the earth tremors occurring either naturally or from mining activity which caused such a high death toll in South African mines.

He also tabled a slide illustrating the effects of sinkholes. About 20% of Gauteng lay on dolomite rock. When water reacted with dolomite rock, sinkholes developed, with disastrous results for infrastructure and animal and human life. He submitted that leaking water reticulation pipes impacted badly upon the dolomite. Many of the  caves in Gauteng were a benign example of the impact or effect of water on dolomite. By way of another slide he showed the sinkhole risk aspects of the land between Centurion and Tshwane, with the high-risk areas outlined in red and noted that the route of the Gautrain moved among the high-risk area. He submitted that special engineering arrangements had been taken to ensure the safety of the Gautrain.

In presenting on mining and the environment, Mr Ramontja emphasised that mining had been taking place for more that 100 years. He further emphasised that water ingress to current, old and disused mines gave rise to concerns, for the water then mixed with sulphur and became acidic, which was problematic. CGS was at the moment in control of this, but the problem was ever-present. Water was polluted either through mining activities, or where the mining had been abandoned, and that many informal settlements were close to these mines. He suggested that all communities needed to be educated on the dangers of polluted water. There were associated problems with the rising levels of water in mines in the central basin. In this regard he singled out a number of named mines, where water levels at about 600 metres below the surface were rising by about 40 centimetres every day.

CGS was particularly concerned about the need for proper closure of all the old abandoned, and hence unsafe openings in the Witwatersrand mining basin. He stated that approximately 900 openings had been located to date.108 holes had been sealed in the previous three years and 20 000 pamphlets explaining the situation and problems were distributed to the many households adjacent to these dangerous openings. Community representatives had been trained and hired to convey the messages about the danger.

There were also plans for CGS to compile an Atlas to assess potential storage areas of CO2 in potential rock formations below the depth of 800 metres in such places as deep saline aquifers, unmineable coal seams and depleted oil and gas fields.

CGS collaborated scientifically with nine other countries, mainly in Africa, and anticipated entering contracts with Algeria worth several million rand. Of especial importance was the collaboration with Japan, as it had extensive experience with earthquakes and tsunamis. The World Cup for Geology was to take place in Australia 2012 and then in 2016 in South Africa. This was a much-coveted honour,  but would require extensive work in achieving funding, sponsorship and preparation. CGS, in association with other countries, had 31 seismic stations in 13 countries with continuous recording of data and 70-80% data recovery. In this regard the University of Witwatersrand was particularly active and of great assistance.

With regard to human capital development, he noted that, under the leadership of a retired geologist, there was an on-going training school for young geologists in Polokwane, which was very fruitful.

Slides reflecting comparative figures in the staff profile by race, professional job category, gender profile and bursary holders and bursary expenditure were also shown, and reflected that there was a decided swing in favour of blacks and women.

Mr Ramontja finally listed the challenges facing the CGS. These included insufficient funding, which hindered the delivery on the CGS mandate and also the training of young scientists, who could more easily be lured away since CGS did not have the funds to match the remuneration offered by the private sector or in the rest of the world. However, CGS was working with Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and MINTEK in an effort to improve the situation.

The Chairperson noted that the Chairperson of the CGS was present, and asked if he did not wish to address the Committee.

Professor Phuti Ngoepe, Chairperson, CGS, noted that every aspect had been covered more than adequately by Mr Ramontja. However, it was manifestly clear that the CGS required to be given, or to increase through its own activities, additional funding so that once the interior mapping had been completed, the mapping of the seaboard could be attended to. He felt that the CGS was already, but needed to do more towards increasing its international profile, which he conceded was greater than its internal profile.

Ms N Mathebela (ANC) congratulated the CGS on a fine report and good work. She expressed concern about the alleged poaching of the young scientists, and asked whether they should not be bound contractually to the CGS for at least as many years as they had received bursaries or had been assisted with studies.

Ms Mathibela asked what could be done about the problems arising from dolomite, especially since those living in informal settlements were most at risk, and they tended not to obey warnings.

Ms N Ngele (ANC) also complimented the CGS on the standard and quality of the presentation. She added that she came from Tshwane, and that, especially in Atteridgeville, there was a grave problem with shale and dolomite. She asked what could be done about this. She also asked if it was not dangerous for people to live in areas where holes had been filled. With regard to Crown Mines, she wanted to know if more could be done than merely erecting signs.

Ms F Bikani (ANC) enquired why, despite the much-vaunted work of CGS, two people had been killed in rock falls the previous week. Communities were not only agitated but angered by the constant deaths from tremors and rockfalls in the mines. She enquired why CGS could not alert people to the dangers before they occurred, and why the Mine Health and Safety Act was not being properly applied.

Ms Bikani also asked for further details of what CGS was doing to encourage and assist small miners, and how it was complying with Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) requirements.

Mr Ramontja responded that the CGS worked in close co-operation with the Department of Mining in advancing the small miners and small mining, but was not simply a question of giving money to someone who proclaimed himself a small miner, but establishing the viability and sustainability of the proposals.

Adv H Schmidt (DA) asked for further explanation about the carbon dioxide geological storage, which he did not fully grasp.

Mr Ramontja noted that this was linked to the carbon dioxide emission problem and a solution must be found. At present, the best solution seemed to be to capture the carbon dioxide, compress it and store it in a liquid state, for it was much like water and could be stored. The USA was using compressed carbon dioxide gas to assist with the pumping out of oil and gas from mines from vacated areas.

Prof Ngoepe added that there was collaboration with other countries and programmes in this regard, and that at the moment it looked very promising. There were various world wide studies being undertaken.

Ms Mathebela queried the safety of the storage of CO2, especially if it ran with water.

Mr Ramontja said that depleted coalmines were regarded as a potential safe storage because the CO2 reacted with the remaining traces of coal.

Adv Schmidt also noted that the pollution of water through decanting was a major problem and, despite CGS’s assurances that the matter was under control, he had been informed by some mining companies that water was  combining with some chemicals to make toxic mixes.

Ms B Tinto (ANC) asked what measures were in place to replace the ailing scientific equipment.

Prof Ngoepe noted that presently, the CGS had budgeted R1.5 million for replacement of scientific equipment, although such a sum was far too low for even one single piece of equipment sourced from overseas could cost considerably more. Negotiations were under way with National Treasury (NT) but no conclusion had been arrived at as yet.

Mr Ramontja explained, in answer to all the questions raised about dolomite, that dolomite was a very real problem. Dolomite was underground in much of Gauteng. Until it came into contact with, and reacted with water, the dolomite was quite safe. However, once it mixed with water – and it must be remembered that there was quite a lot of water leaking from infrastructure pipes as well as decanting water – then the dolomite became porous and tended to crumble. CGS was collaborating with the National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC) and the Municipalities and was providing advice in respect of buildings, but since there was no legislation to compel compliance with such advice the immediate problem was out of the control of CGS. However, both in Departments and Ministries, consideration was being given to drafting appropriate legislation to require compliance with CGS recommendations.

The Chairperson said he too was concerned with the position of people in informal settlements that were most at risk from sinkholes and similar events.

Mr Ramontja repeated that CGS was collaborating with other institutions such as NBHRC, but could not ensure compliance with its advice.

Ms N Ngele asked that more be done with the CSIR, because the rate of deaths was disturbing.

The Chairperson agreed that the deaths were the cause of heartache, but he wanted the causes of seismic activity to be established, and he asked why they could not be anticipated and foreseen.

Mr Ramontja said that CGS was concerned and was working towards the solution but this was a long process.

Adv Schmidt said that all this work was important and should be done speedily as South Africa needed to be better able to predict tremors and other seismic event to prevent loss of life and property.

Ms Ngele asked why, if aerial surveys were such an answer to determining the existence of mineral deposits and mapping, these could not be used for determination of tremors and other similar events.

Mr Ramontja said that the CGS had more knowledge than ever before, and was already compiling a data base so that projections could be made, but the CGS was not able to prophesy earthquakes and tremors. Not even the Japanese could do so with any accuracy. The warning time was also extremely short.

Ms Bikani said that perhaps the Portfolio Committee should adopt a changed approach and legislate that if there was a failure to give warnings would lead to prosecution.

The Chairperson said it was just one of the many issues, but it seemed to him that the question of funding and the role of the National Treasury should not be underplayed.

Mr Ramontja said he did not wish to be accused of misleading the Portfolio Committee. He therefore revealed that CGS was about to receive an extra R20 million from its commercial activities. Although there was an increase in income, there was also an increase in CGS’s salaries bill.

Ms Bikani asked for some amplification on the role of the Board, especially as Mr Mabuza had missed or not been present at most of the meetings.

Mr Ramontja said that he would prefer the Chairman to be replying on this point. However, CGS had recognised the problems with some members and were working on them and developing a disciplinary code. He added that Mr Mabuza was a Director-General, and as such was heavily involved in other work. Other than that the Board had stipulated quarterly meetings at which it developed strategy and risk management assessments, and if need be, had further meetings also. He felt that there was a good relationship between the Board of Directors and the Management and he added that transformation had been viewed as a major issue. As the slides revealed, much had been achieved in that regard.

Prof Ngoepe added that the Board had been concerned with fundamental principles and the development of strategy and goals. He confirmed that one of the main goals was transformation. He assured the Portfolio Committee that the Board was looking at a disciplinary code so that future problems of attendance at Board meetings would be covered.

Financial Report of CGS
Mr Leonard Matsepe, Chief Financial Officer, CGS, briefly took the Portfolio Committee through the financial report which, other than the loses through foreign exchange matters, which were necessary and beyond the control of the Board, were satisfactory.

Mr Ramontja said that the work of the CGS had revealed large issues which four years ago had not been conceived, let alone considered. He felt, however, that the CGS was now on top of such problems, perhaps not having all the answers but working towards having a better understanding.

Ms Bikani wanted to know whether the stones which could be found adjacent to the road between Mthatha and Port St Johns could not be used profitably. She also raised the question of access to the CGS offices and wondered how many of them were in the rural areas.

Mr Ramontja advised that aggregate, small stones were used for the foundations of RDP houses and perhaps the stones referred to could be used. However, the cost of transporting them must be factored in, and this might militate against their use.

Mr Ramontja noted that the CGS tried to help wherever possible, and had some regional offices, not in every province, but where it was considered that there was the most need. He conceded that the people generally were not aware of its existence and that much more had to be done to promote CGS.

Ms Bikani asked why, considering the bad reports about the geological stability of the area, houses had been built at Khutsong.

The Chairperson wished to know what was being done to secure new discoveries of minerals, especially gold.

Mr Ramontja explained that the international price of gold was the determinant. When the price of gold was high it was profitable to mine low-grade areas and explore in order to establish new gold reserves. When the price of gold was low, such activity was discouraged, and only the high grade gold was mined. He explained that he was optimistic about the reserves in South Africa of gold and other minerals, and felt that there was, at current prices, sufficient for a long time. He noted that in regard to coal, the Department of Mining, Eskom and CGS were  working together to ascertain further reserves. Even if no new reserves were found, the existing ones were still considerable.

Ms Bikani wanted stronger efforts to retain bursary holders.

Mr Ramontja explained that in the light of the Constitution it was not possible to do more than was done at present.

The Chairperson said that, in view of the State of the Nation Addresses, he wished to hear more about job creation and rural community development.

Mr Ramontja said that CGS was working to achieve that but scientists were not found everywhere and took long and expensive training to reach their full potential.

The Members adopted the report on the Annual Report.

The meeting was adjourned.


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