The sustainability reporting practice of the South African mining industry: community perspectives

Memela, Nomathemba Melody
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Several studies have been conducted to understand the contribution of the private sector to the global mission of Sustainable Development through the examination of the Sustainability Reporting practice of these actors. However, the accuracy and effectiveness of this now prevalent business practice as a reflection of true company sustainability activities and performance on the ground is still in question globally. Previous work has investigated this contribution and reporting practice through examining the secondary data of company sustainability reports as a basis, and has failed to look at it from the point of view of the external stakeholders on the ground, at whom the sustainability contribution as well as the reporting practice is normally targeted. Studies and literature in this area has also focused on the developed world, and less so on the developing world, mostly polarised, and most in need of sustainable development. To close this gap, this study focused on the lived experiences of key community stakeholders in order to bring to light and investigate the primary evidence of sustainability on the ground. Anchoring the research enquiry in the socio-political Stakeholder and Legitimacy theories as the dominant theoretical underpinnings of the sustainability reporting (SR) practice, a qualitative inductive case study of two South African mining communities where two different mining company operations are located was carried out. Primary data was collected through semi-structured interviews as the basis of the analysis process, where the analytical strategy of grounded theory was employed. After which, relevant secondary data was collected from respective company sustainability reports to enable a counter analysis. The findings of the study confirmed a lack of accuracy and consistency between the sustainability reporting of these mining companies and the sustainability reality experience of community stakeholders on the ground. The most basic impacts of mining still remained in the two study settings, disparities were found in how these were reported by the mining companies, and misalignment in the understanding of what constitutes mining impacts and therefore what informs the sustainability priorities of the settings. The engagement of community stakeholders by the mine was found to be poor, with engagement dynamics described as lacking and ineffective. Stark power asymmetries were found in the relationships amongst various stakeholders with the mining companies. Furthermore, the construction and management of mining legitimacy in the two settings was not inclusive of community stakeholders. As a result, only some legal legitimacy existed, social legitimacy of mining was found to be glaringly absent. The overall conclusion of the study was that the SR practice of these companies was found to be lacking. The applicability of the two dominant theories that generally underpin the practice of SR was found to be insufficient in describing the practice of these cases in a developing country setting. Unique structural conditions resulting from South Africa’s apartheid and colonial past, its neo-liberal political economy contributes to this and undermines genuine commitment to sustainability. Evidence suggests an important applicability of institutional theory in this setting. There is also a need to look into indigenous theories for a more culturally-relevant and human-centred approach required in such a developing country setting.
A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management, Wits Business School, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2020
Sustainability Reporting, Corporate Sustainability, South African Mining Sector, Accuracy of Sustainability Reports, Community Stakeholders, UCTD