College of Science, Engineering & Technology

Unisa's catalytic niche areas provide industry-focused mining innovations

Unisa and mining company Palabora Copper (PC), a subsidiary of the Palabora Mining Company (PMC), signed a landmark memorandum of understanding (MoU) at the university’s Science Campus on 12 April 2024. In terms of the MoU, Unisa will, among other things, devise innovative solutions to operational challenges, collaborate on industry-related research and provide PC employees with access to world-class postgraduate qualifications.


Signing the MoU on behalf of their respective organisations were Aidan Schoonbee, Senior Manager: Concentrator, Underground Construction and Vent Shaft, PMC, and Prof Puleng LenkaBula, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor

The journey towards the signing of the MoU shows a clear link between academia and industry. It started with Prof Francois Mulenga’s inaugural lecture on 19 July 2023, entitled "Modelling the mine production chain for improved performance". Mulenga is the Chair of the Department of Mining, Mineral and Geomatics Engineering at Unisa’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET). The signing was preceded by a media session held at PMC’s Phalaborwa headquarters earlier this month.

What does the MoU entail?

The MoU concluded between Unisa and PC is founded on seven pillars:

  • Research and development in areas not limited to science, engineering and technology for postgraduate studies to support and enable PC employees to participate in industry-based research through master’s and doctoral studies. This area aligns with the business strategy which is aimed at setting PC at a competitive edge.
  • Work-integrated learning opportunities to assist Unisa students in gaining practical work experience to be able to graduate as part of the university’s organisational social responsibility.
  • Development of short learning programmes (SLPs) at above NQF Level 4 to accelerate the development of PC employees by elevating their knowledge and skills over and above the mandatory training or occupational qualifications.
  • Development of a Higher Certificate in Supervisory Development (NQF Level 5) in accordance with PC leadership’s development strategy which defines leadership skills and competencies for frontline/first-time leaders. This will enable supervisors to effectively lead, inspire and guide their teams to successfully deliver on production targets.
  • Implementation of recognition of prior learning (RPL) to provide opportunities for PC employees who have gained experience in specific areas yet have no qualification to obtain formal qualification aligned to their career path. This will include partial exemptions on government certificate of competence for the Mine Manager’s Certificate.
  • Collaboration between PC and Unisa around research, innovation, commercialisation and technical support to drive business sustainability to build strong technical pipeline or internal pool experts. This will minimise reliance on OEMs and assist PC employees to gain knowledge and technology transfer for optimising operations and project development.
  • Exchange of educators, learners, administrators and advisors to participate in conferences, symposia and seminars. This will provide a platform for professional development and networking (experts, researchers and professionals to share their knowledge and insights on a particular subject or field). Through this initiative, PC employees will have unlimited access to inputs from Unisa experts.


From left: Dennis Modise, Senior Manager: Human Resources, PMC; Prof Francois Mulenga, Chair of the Department of Mining, Mineral and Geomatics Engineering at Unisa; Mabore Macheru, Manager: Training, Development and Contractor Management, PMC; Aidan Schoonbee, Senior Manager: Concentrator, Underground Construction and Vent Shaft, PMC; Prof Puleng LenkaBula, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor; Prof Thenjiwe Meyiwa, Unisa Vice-Principal of Research, Postgraduate Studies, Innovation and Commercialisation; and Prof Bheki Mamba, Executive Dean of Unisa’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology

A university at the centre of imagining society

Speaking at the signing ceremony, Prof Puleng LenkaBula, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor (VC), commented as follows: "For us as a university, the partnership with industry is not only important, but is fundamental because the research that is undertaken by our scientists and researchers and the intersection regarding economies and impacting the world positively are at the centre of how we imagine society."

The VC said that South Africa and many countries on the continent use mining and mineral resources to catapult their economies. "In South Africa," she continued, "mining has been the bedrock of our economy as our country is rich in mineral resources. Mining is also central to the automotive industry; electric vehicles cannot be produced successfully without some of the mineral resources from our country and the continent at large."

It is important to reinvest the knowledge gained through this partnership, said the VC. "It is essential that we reinvest the knowledge and move beyond science and research. Let us look at benefit sharing and so that we can have productivity that is enhanced. That is the model that I would like for us to pursue. It allows us to have effective mining efficiencies, cost-effective systems, and research influencing productivity that, in turn, influences reinvestment."


Unveiling a plaque commemorating the MoU are (from left) Mabore Macheru, Manager: Training, Development and Contractor Management, PMC, and Prof Thenjiwe Meyiwa, Unisa Vice-Principal of Research, Postgraduate Studies, Innovation and Commercialisation

Unisa’s catalytic niche areas to the fore

The VC stated that the signing of the MoU gives concrete expression to the implementation of the university’s catalytic niche areas, and will contribute to PC being one of the leading companies in the world and Unisa’s students and scientists being some of the leading mining experts globally.

"I am truly appreciative," she said, "of the fact that the MoU involves at least three of our catalytic niche areas. It will not only contribute towards the digitisation of the mining niche area, but also towards student and co-curricular support, and provide students with experience as they learn about mining. Another catalytic niche area that will be impacted by this partnership is that of  energy. This is even more important, especially in the context of the energy challenges faced in our country."

A win-win for academia and industry

Speaking on behalf of PC, Aidan Schoonbee, concentrator, underground construction and vent shaft senior manager at PMC, said that it was an honour to be welcomed at Unisa’s world-class Science Campus. "Some of you may take this magnificent facility for granted – I urge you not to."

Schoonbee expressed the company’s belief that the seven pillars within which the MoU is established are enabling. "They are not limiting, but win-win and not competitive," he continued. "The scope of cooperation is industry-focused and people-centred. It is already impacting our business and people’s lives."

He continued: "Not everything that counts, can be counted. If we seek out innovations and inventions and we focus only on those, I believe we will exclude 99% of our employees and will exclude 99% of the ideas and contributions made by these employees."

In conclusion, Schoonbee said that the MoU is a solution to real-life problems. "It is new, it is already adding value and, most powerfully, it has cost both organisations very little because we have been able to utilise existing resources to develop the relations and the roadmap for the journey ahead."

Mabore Macheru, manager responsible for training, development and contractor management at PMC, said that their organisation faces challenges that are common within the mining industry. "These," she said, "tend to result in business disruptions due to lower process efficiencies and inadequate plant and equipment availability. This requires an increase in the right level of skills, acumen and attitudes to address and solve those operational challenges. Through this partnership,  our employees will have an opportunity to enrol for postgraduate studies where they will embark on relevant research to support our business strategy."

To date, 12 postgraduate students,  have been enrolled at Unisa through the partnership.

Inventing the future as a collective

Speaking at the conclusion of the signing ceremony, Prof Thenjiwe Meyiwa, Unisa’s Vice-Principal of Research, Postgraduate Studies, Innovation and Commercialisation, said that the MoU is a case of scholarship meeting industry. "We have a joint future, and it was clear today that Palabora Copper speaks our language. One word repeated often today is 'solutions'. Let us find solutions to the problems that we have, to live a better life. What we are doing here has made me realise that we are actually inventing the future as a collective. In finding solutions, let us transform for the better; not only for the better of individual organisations also of our communities."

* By Dr Nozipho N Gumbi, Communication and Marketing Specialist (acting), College of Science, Engineering and Technology

Publish date: 2024/04/16

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