Monday, 4 May 2015

In conversation with IMPC Chairman Cyril O’Connor

In 1982 I spent six weeks at the University of Cape Town (UCT), advising on, and teaching, a new course in mineral processing in the Department of Chemical Engineering. In my class was a young lecturer in chemical engineering, Dr. Cyril O'Connor, who obviously had a keen interest in the flotation lectures. Cyril and I got on well, having common interests such as cricket and wining and dining. He and his wife Nanette became great friends of the family, and it has been good to see how his career has progressed from those far-off days, and to talk to him about his life and the changes that he has seen in his native South Africa.

Cyril with MEI's Amanda in New Delhi, 2012
Cyril's family background is deeply ingrained in South African mining. All his grandparents emigrated from Ireland in the last two decades of the 19th century, the men to work on the diamond mines in Kimberley or the gold mines in Johannesburg. Cyril's paternal grandfather came to South Africa, as a barely literate 16 year old from Kerry, in about 1890 to work at Kimberley. His maternal grandfather came out to the newly discovered gold mines in Johannesburg, also in the late 19th century. His father was born in Kimberley and moved with his parents to the gold mines in Johannesburg when he was a small child. Cyril's mother was born in Johannesburg. Both of his grandfathers died as a result of mining- his paternal grandfather from a rock fall at the famous Simmer & Jack mine and his maternal grandfather from silicosis contracted while working underground. Both of his grandparents died while Cyril’s parents were still children. Cyril’s father left school at age 14 and then spent 51 years working for Rand Mines, mainly at Crown Mines, in those days the largest mine in the world in terms of employees.

Cyril was born in Johannesburg in 1944, the third of four children. He has two surviving brothers, his sister, the eldest sibling, having died in her early 20s. He received a 1st class honours degree in chemistry from UCT in 1975 and a PhD in 1978,  followed by a DSc in metallurgical engineering from Stellenbosch University in 2005. He took up a position as junior lecturer in the Department of Physical Chemistry in 1978 and then in 1979 became a senior lecturer in the chemical engineering department. He met Nanette while she was doing her MSc in Pharmacology and was living in the same apartment block. She needed someone to help her with programming and Cyril put her in touch with Brian Paddon, who in 1982 would invite me to UCT where I first met Cyril! Cyril and Nanette married in 1984.

He has been involved with the Department of Chemical Engineering ever since, and has overseen its growth into one of the world’s foremost mineral processing institutes, particularly in the fields of flotation and comminution.  Beginning as a small flotation research group in 1980, Cyril’s minerals processing research group has progressed to being today a University-accredited Centre of which he was Director until 2013, at which time he was succeeded by a former PhD student, Professor Dave Deglon. The Centre for Minerals Research, which enjoys a considerable global reputation, incorporates the Reagent, Comminution, Cell Design, Modelling and Simulation, and Metallurgical Accounting Groups. The Centre consists variously of about 8 full-time academic staff as well as 10-15 research officers and assistants and usually about 30-40 post-doctoral and post-graduate research students.  This research is aimed at all aspects of flotation and comminution and, more recently, process mineralogy. The Centre is funded by over 30 mining, manufacturing and chemical reagent companies world-wide as well as the National Research Foundation and the Department of Trade and Industries.  The Unit collaborates closely in a joint venture with the JKMRC at the University of Queensland as a major research provider in the AMIRA P9 Project, a very large global joint venture.

As well as his involvement with the Centre for Minerals Research, Cyril was the founder, also in 1980, of what was to become the Centre for Catalysis Research, also located in the Department of Chemical Engineering at UCT. Since 2013 he has been Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Scholar.

He is presently Chairman of the International Mineral Processing Council (IMPC), held the Anglo American Platinum Chair in Minerals Processing from 2008-2012, was Vice-President of the International Zeolite Association, is a member of the Executive of the Academy of Engineering of South Africa and is CEO of the South African Minerals to Metals Research Institute. He was the head of the Department of Chemical Engineering for 8 years and then Dean of the Faculty of Engineering for 10 years. Before retiring in 2009 he served a brief stint as an Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University.

He has published over 200 papers in international journals and international refereed conferences, has supervised more than 30 PhD and 25 MSc graduates and at his academic retirement at the end of 2009 was an NRF ‘A’ rated researcher.

Cyril has seen enormous changes in South Africa, and at UCT, during his long career. The photograph of chemical engineering staff and students below was taken in 1982 during my brief time at UCT. Cyril is 2nd from the right on the front row, I am 4th from the right. Brian Paddon, who invited me to UCT, is far right. Also in the front row are Geoff Hansford (6th from right) and Duncan Fraser (5th from left) who have since died. Phillipa Coetzee (3rd from left), who is also no longer with us, was the wife of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature J.M. Coetzee.

Although the foundations of apartheid were beginning to crumble in the early 80s it is immediately apparent that this is an all-white group, with not an indigenous black face in sight. How different it is today, with many bright black students from South Africa and neighbouring countries graduating each year, and black members of staff who have become fine international ambassadors for UCT such as Prof. Aubrey Mainza, MEI’s comminution consultant, now highly regarded as one of the world’s leading comminution researchers. I asked Cyril what his thoughts were on these momentous changes which have taken place within his country.

"We were lucky to have real leaders like Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk working together at the same time, and we all owe them hugely for opening the country up to immense new opportunities. I know many people left South Africa in the 70s and 80s out of despair but I also know many who later returned. In the apartheid days we never had the chance to host many visitors from, or visit many, foreign institutions. Today for example our Centre has very close ties with BGRIMM in China – this would have been unheard of in those days. So it’s been a very exciting time since the demise of apartheid. It has also been very exciting to witness over the past 20 years the growth of a large and excellent cohort of black post-graduates in the Centre, not only from South Africa but from all over the continent, and in this way one has a most fulfilling experience of participating in the education of a new generation of post-graduates who will be playing key roles in the future in the development of Africa’s incredible mineral wealth."

In 2003 the International Mineral Processing Congress was held in the ‘new’ South Africa for the first time. The previous IMPCs had been stiff formal affairs, but under Cyril’s Chairmanship a new era of IMPCs was ushered in, which showed that conferences were not only about formal dinners and papers, but could also be fun and provide ideal opportunities for people to really get to know each other. Who will ever forget that memorable night at Ratanga Junction, where the entertainment, food and wine forged many friendships for ever? Cyril paid tribute to the organizing committee which included, among others,  Leon Lorenzen (who chaired the Technical Sub-Committee), Dee Bradshaw, Dave Deglon, and the real star, Meg Winter, who looked after all the details which are so critical to the success of a Congress, such as registration, social events, managing the venue (this was the first major conference ever held at the outstanding International Convention Centre in Cape Town, now voted among the top 10 in the world), and so many other things. 

Cyril joining in the fun at the Cape Town IMPC in 2003
Following on from the success of the XXII IMPC, Cyril was appointed Chairman of the International Mineral Processing Council in 2006, a position that he has held ever since. He says that "the challenges of the IMPC are to ensure that the activities of the Council serve the interests of the industry globally and apart from the fact that the Congresses in the past 10 or so years have been really exciting events the formation of the IMPC Commissions have all added significantly to the activities and relevance of the IMPC."

Cyril with Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Janusz Laskowski
in Beijing 2008
One of the major problems facing our industry has been in the recruitment of high quality young people, exacerbated by the decline in the number of mineral processing degree courses in the western world. In 2010 the International Mineral Processing Council established an Education Commission, chaired by Professor Jan Cilliers, a member of Council and also Professor at the Royal School of Mines at Imperial College, UK. The Commission established a working group consisting of representatives from almost all mining countries around the world and over the past few years has investigated in some depth the global status regarding the supply of graduates for the industry as well as recent trends in the education of such graduates. The results of the study have been published (posting of 30 October 2013). I asked Cyril if the IMPC had any views, and possible plans, on attracting young people into our industry. Should the IMPC be more involved with targeting young people via social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, which are avidly used by students at schools and Universities?

“The Council through this Commission and other interventions can indeed assist significantly in attracting bright young graduates to the industry” he said. “I have experienced at first hand the way in which the cutting edge research seen at so many sessions at recent Congresses has excited and stimulated young graduates. The current phase of this Commission’s work, led by Dr Diana Drinkwater, seeks to develop a 21st century curriculum for minerals processing and I think one of the challenges will be to attract, through exciting curricula, graduates who would otherwise have gravitated to disciplines such as IT, mechatronics, biotechnology, etc. Undoubtedly it is also a good time to begin to use social media in an appropriate way to reach out to a much broader audience than we do at present. The Council will certainly be giving this matter its attention.”

Cyril has many interests outside work. He and his wife Nanette are keen golfers, and Cyril has been very much involved with cricket. He retired in 2009 from the Executive of the Western Province Cricket Association (WPCA), which administers cricket in the Western Cape and has its home at the beautiful Newlands Cricket ground, having served for 23 years on the Executive Committee and the last eight as Vice President. He was "also privileged to play a role in the unification of cricket between the various ‘racial’ cricketing bodies in 1990."  Much of his activities was involved in the development of the sport in the underprivileged areas of the Western Cape and "that was a particularly fulfilling challenge." In 2010 he was elected as one of the five Life Members of WPCA.

It is always good to meet up with Cyril and Nanette, in Cape Town and other parts of the world, and it has been a pleasure to learn more of his interesting background and life in South Africa.

With Cyril and Nanette in Cape Town, 2005

More Conversations


  1. Wow! It brings back old memories. In the staff/student photo, I am top row, far left! Cyril has always been a wonderful ambassador of chemical engineering and UCT in particular.

    Rex Zietsman, Whitfield Consult, South Africa

    1. Thanks for identifying yourself in the photo Rex. I have great memories of those weeks at UCT

  2. I refer to Cyril O'Connor's statement "Undoubtedly it is also a good time to begin to use social media in an appropriate way to reach out to a much broader audience than we do at present. The Council will certainly be giving this matter its attention".
    If they have I see no evidence of it four years on, on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. The IMPC image of old men in suits still prevails I'm afraid.
    Andy Cullen, Dublin

  3. AIME has released its newest oral history capture on Dr. Cyril O'Connor. It was great working with Cyril and Brij Moudgil in bringing this project to fruition. Cyril has had a long and storied career in minerals processing, and I think you will enjoy seeing this history unfold with the additional photos included during the video. (Many of which Barry provided!) Thank you Barry, for inviting my comments here.

    You can find Cyril's videos on the AIME YouTube channel along with others you may know.

    Thanks again, Cyril. It was wonderful working with you.


If you have difficulty posting a comment, please email the comment to and I will submit on your behalf