‘Neem die goede uit die verlede en bou die toekoms daarop’ Paul Kruger
The topics of the papers in this issue all relate to the platinum group metals. The two mining papers and the Presidential Address (September Journal ), point very clearly to a change in the culture of narrow reef mining and particularly in mining the Merensky and the UG2 reefs of the Bushveld Igneous Complex (BIC). Something far more sophisticated is needed—low profile haulage vehicles, automated drilling by high-speed hydraulic powered drills, highpressure water jet cleaning, and indeed a combination of new technology, new systems, and new designs, which require advanced engineering, and materials science and sophisticated drilling rigs.
The new look in mining is exciting but implies new challenges in acquiring new skills and transferring these to working at the stope face and to the manufacturers of the new equipment. The papers on physical metallurgy and new alloys of the platinum group metals are very topical: the Minister of Minerals and Energy recently expressed her determination to promote the advanced processing of our mineral resources and referred to the manufacture of jewellery locally. New alloys are indeed relevant to jewellery but have far wider applications in industry. To enter such fields we will have to master many new skills and experience in applications and marketing. I was recently inspired when I attended the meeting of the Johannesburg Branch. A presentation was given on ‘Junior Platinum Mining’ by Ken Lomberg of Coffey Mining, who specializes in exploiting BIC resources, from stope face to boardroom economics. It was a remarkable presentation.
I had hoped to get some of the actual statistics to include in this column, but this did not materialize, and I can only hope that Ken will publish the full content of his presentation in our Journal sometime soon. The data he presented opened my eyes to the huge potential of the BIC in terms of its uniformity and thus the opportunity for exploitation around almost the whole perimeter of the BIC, by many more, somewhat smaller mines than the bigger existing producers. Of course Ken emphasized the need for technology innovation in metallurgical processing and new skills in mining, which would be applicable to small-scale operations. I came away deeply impressed with the potential of this area, adding some more kilobytes worth of mental calculations on the length of the perimeter of the BIC. I compared this with that of the famous stretch of the gold conglomerates between, say, Balfour (the latest gold mine on the eastern rim) through to Welkom on the southwest.
I then took a peak annual value of gold production (at an arbitrary $600/oz) from all the mines along the length of this golden perimeter and compared it to the present value of platinum production of the existing mines at $1 450/oz. I came to the conclusion that if the rate of motor vehicle production on this planet continues to increase at an exponential rate, we would have, in a few years, a greater potential in terms of income per kilometre of mining activity on the perimeter of the BIC than we had for gold at its peak in the last century. I then thought of the other resources within the BIC area. Nickel (investment from Russia), chromite, titaniferous and vanadiumbearing magnetite and fluorspar. Integrating all of this mentally, I generated a megabyte vision of a new era of unprecedented development of mining-based activity north of the Magaliesberg between Rustenburg and Lydenburg, not only in mining but also in proper housing, towns, even cities with schools, technical colleges and industries.
My vision was a modern version of what happened a hundred years ago in the Witwatersrand to create a mighty industrial and educational complex to match the best in the world, focused on the gold mines. I list the main cities and towns to emphasize the magnitude, accommodating some 10 million people: Nigel, Springs, Brakpan, Benoni, Boksburg, Germiston, Johannesburg, Roodepoort, Krugersdorp, Randfontein, Carletonville, Klerksdorp, Welkom, and Virginia. Could it happen again in the next century? A technical hub of about 14 such centres around the BIC? But the vision soon clouded and froze, and had to be booted in my mental computer. I had run out of a capacity to handle the human resources for education and training to provide the skills needed to extrapolate the vision on a meaningful time base. There seems to be no easy solution to a problem, which will take many generations to correct in terms of present policies and progress. I can leave you with only a line of thinking that might point to some way forward. These thoughts are based on an analysis of the previous century and a comparison of similarities and differences.
There can be no question that the successes of the last century were made possible by a huge influx of expertise, skills and finance from overseas. Our education and skills training based on disciplined learning at schools, technical colleges and universities followed the European model. And as we all know, it also depended on low cost local and migrant labour. This latter factor has changed dramatically, giving rise to the ‘catch-up’ problem of immense proportions. However, in the mining scene we are now in a world of global conglomerates. Maybe we can use this to our advantage. Platinum, the basis of the new vision, is an essential commodity in the global industries, and even more so in minimizing exhaust emissions. We are in essence the only producer. And it is unlikely that major powers will accept a South African monopoly to manipulate prices, as has happened with OPEC.
Thus there is a huge incentive for major players to invest in a share of the source material. If wisely handled, this can translate not into blackmail but into an incentive also to become a partner, creating a climate and culture of technical education at all levels, if only to ensure sustainability of mining operations in terms of the Mining Charter. It seems there is increasing room in the marketplace for many new international investors to do this. The precedent has already been set to include in this investment proper housing and stable communities associated with the mines. It would take little more to extend this to provide schools and technical colleges and key teaching and training personnel to go with them. These can serve not only the expatriates from the investing nations, but also the local staff and their families. There are also financial models for these investors to contribute to research and development at the local universities and research instituions on a cooperative basis. It would be essential that these initial expatriates intermingle with the local communities to create a culture of disciplined technology.
The expatriate salaries for teachers, lecturers and mentors would set an example, which we would be hard pressed not to copy. And it would be easy to do so. Many countries would be, I imagine, delighted to invest and employ their own people in South Africa, and the immigrants could be enthralled to have this opportunity. Such concepts should not detract in any way from initiatives by mining and major engineering companies to continue their efforts, such as the creation of an Academy of Technical Training. Of course there will be many challenges, language, xenophobia and cultural differences, which are no strangers to South Africa. But these are outweighed by the benefit of establishing a combined community of interactive technical excellence. In the mining industry, safety must be the supreme priority. In effect this means zero defects in equipment, services and manpower training. Our accreditation, registration, and inspection must be developed to be accepted internationally and enforceable, but this will be feasible, only if it is undertaken by an international community. Could these thoughts lead to a ‘platinum renaissance’, reminiscent of previous golden years? R.E. Robinson November 2007