The SA Mining Industry

South Africa features prominently in terms of the world’s reserves and producers of a number of mineral commodities, particularly the platinum group metals, manganese, chromium, vanadium, gold, titanium, zirconium, and, to a lesser extent, coal and uranium. Although the minerals industry is a relatively small sector of today’s world economy, its contribution to modern living remains substantial, with the primary resource sector providing essential inputs for virtually all sectors of the economy. In addition to the direct contribution, mining also has an indirect multiplier effect on the gross domestic product, giving rise to a “real” contribution to South Africa’s GDP of between 15 and 20%. More than 1 million people are employed within the mining sector and supporting industries; each mineworker is reported to support between 7 and 10 dependants so that the industry supports between 7 and 10 million people. Thus, it plays a prominent role in socio-economic upliftment and transformation within the country.

At the same time, the industry is facing a number of important challenges. These include developing and implementing the technologies needed to sustain the industry and its significant contribution to the GDP, and developing and retaining the skills required to accomplish this. In many countries around the world, minerals-related research facilities have closed in recent years, and research capabilities have shrunk in South Africa as well. The challenge created by this situation also provides an opportunity for South Africa to leapfrog into a new paradigm in which it recovers and strengthens its global leadership role in the area of minerals processing.

In this context, a review study was commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in 2009. The purpose of the study was to assess the status of the South African mineral processing industry, to identify current strengths and weaknesses, as well as to identify threats and opportunities for research to sustain the industry. It involved, inter alia, a series of intensive interviews with a wide range of senior technical people in the minerals beneficiation sector, as well as active research providers to the sector at Universities and Science Councils, both in South Africa and internationally.

From the review study, several opportunities were identified for the industry, and from these a roadmap and vision were developed. Key elements of the vision are the following:

  • Mining will continue to play a vital role in the world’s economy, but ores may well be processed underground, in inherently safe operations with a minimal surface footprint.
  • Mining philosophy will be based on earth usage and integration, supported by sustainable mining communities and employing fewer but more highly skilled people.
  • Process intensification will provide smaller processing units with high separation efficiencies that will facilitate the application of in-situ and biological processing.
  • Significantly improved grinding technology and better flotation devices will provide higher metal recoveries with lower energy and water consumption.
  • The increased use of dry processing and alternative energy sources, such as solar energy, will contribute to reduced energy and water consumption and effluent generation.
  • Other anticipated process developments include the increased use of ‘new’ technologies, significantly increased plant automation and improved process control.

The major strengths of the industry in South Africa are presently considered to be the technology it employs and the quality of its ore reserves, while the major weaknesses and threats are largely related to the shortage of highly skilled people in the industry and in the tertiary institutions at which such people are educated. This is considered particularly critical in specialised areas of extractive metallurgy such as pyro- and hydrometallurgy. Other threats identified related to the efficiencies of existing processes and the use of energy and water.