ANGLO AMERICAN's Mogalakwena mine on the Bushveld's Northern Limb. Photograph: Anglo Platinum

ANGLO AMERICAN's Mogalakwena mine on the Bushveld's Northern Limb. Photograph: Anglo Platinum

Mechanised Platinum:
A Widening Divide

Issue 113, January 2015

SOUTH AFRICA’s platinum industry is known for its brutal working conditions and violent labour unrest, but at Anglo American’s Mogalakwena mine, the world’s largest open-pit platinum mine, the company faces a very different problem: extending the life of its tyres.

South Africa’s Bushveld Complex, a crescent of platinum deposits reaching north from Pretoria, accounts for two thirds of all platinum mined globally.

Its narrow veins have evaded mechanisation, with workers packed into stopes little higher than the gap beneath a desk, but thicker reefs on its Northern Limb, amenable to bulk mining, could decisively break the industry’s pattern of high labour intensity and recurrent strike action, whilst threatening the closure of huge swathes of existing production.

Northern Limb

Mogalakwena is currently the only mine on the Northern Limb, though London-listed Lonmin owns the Akanani deposit in the region and Toronto-listed Platinum Group Metals has made the nearby Waterberg discovery. Chicago-born mine financier Robert Friedland has meanwhile led the Platreef discovery, where his company Ivanhoe Mines was granted a mining permit last year.

Friedland is considered so persuasive that one fund is said to have placed a moratorium on trading Friedland-related stock within 2 weeks of meeting him personally.

“In a platinum mine in South Africa today,” he has said, “men are working with muscle power. They are breathing what they are drilling and they are tired of doing it for $12 a day.” Workers at Platreef will be more like highly paid surgeons, he has pledged, operating air-conditioned machinery.

Like Ivanhoe’s giant Oyu Tolgoi copper mine in Mongolia, now ensconced in Rio Tinto, Platreef plans to be a monument to modern machinery. Cap-ex is budgeted at $1.2bn, more than double Ivanhoe’s market cap, but Friedland couches everything in human terms: the...

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