Every Friday morning, SAfm’s AMLive’s radio anchor Xolani Gwala speaks to Martin Creamer, publishing editor of Engineering News and Mining Weekly. Reported here is this Friday’s At the Coalface transcript:
Gwala: As state electricity tariffs rise, and we spoke about it this week quite a lot here on SAfm. South Africa’s private sector is looking to ways of generating electricity themselves at lower costs.
Creamer: Ya, its becoming a business case for some companies now to generate their own electricity, and as we speak, you know one of them, which is listed on the Johannesburg stock exchange, Jubilee Platinum, has already got approval from the national electricity regulator of South Africa, Nersa, to sell its surplus power to Eskom. So its going to be producing out of Mpumalanga. It’ll do its own business processing its own metals and minerals etc. But with this Power Alt business that it’s got, which is a separate power generation business, it’ll also have some surpluses and it can sell them to Eskom but what the story there is that, its got a business case to do this, now more long-term, you look at companies like Steenkampskraal thorium, they’re starting to think thorium.
You know, for a long time now we’ve looked at uranium and thought well this is the way to get nuclear power and then all sorts of world authorities come down on you, because they say, oh you’re gonna have weapons grade now you’re gonna give this to the terrorists and all sorts of things like that, whereas with thorium, you don't have those waste issues and you don't have this proliferation issue, and, of course, we are mining rare earth metals in the Cape and one of the by-products is thorium and so they quickly set up this business, Steenkamp Thorium Limited, which aims now not only to mine thorium and beneficiate that thorium but to take a step further and create reactors. Now we know that the government spent about R10-billion, you know, on the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor programme. I mean we used to go to Centurion and see two hundred scientists and engineers sitting there working flat-out on that Pebble Bed Modular Reactor.
And then they said, “No more”! Now, these fellows are picking up some of the pieces and saying: “Look, there was a lot of research done there. We, as the private sector now, can we collaborate? Get some of that laboratory equipment etc?” And they are planning to produce power from thorium, and again, lower safety and less proliferation issues, lower costs. But the big thing about this, is that it can be taken to remote areas. It doesn't rely on a situation of transmission lines and you know, Eskom have got a massive job on their hands with transmission lines, and I think they are budgeting like R140-billion over the next ten years to try and get those transmission lines in, whereas these guys are saying, “look, we can give you the plant based on the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, which died on the vine, but we’ve got a lot of the know-how there in fact, we might co-operate and if we can’t, we can still create these fuel elements and you could have your own little power station there, 100 MW, right next to your mine. If you want another one, you can bolt another 100 MW on and this is the thinking today, whereas, Eskom goes for those massive bespoke power stations. People are saying, no you can import power stations from China. 200 MW worth, you bolt two together, you’ve got 400MW. You bolt five together, you got 1 000 MW. So, different thinking coming through.
Gwala: Very, very interesting, fascinating stuff. Canadians, Martin, are now showing far more guts than South Africans in raising billions of rand for a brand new platinum project in Limpopo, despite turmoil in the platinum sector.
Creamer: You know, I think the big victim in the whole platinum fight at the moment is the investors. People are accusing investors of coming in and ripping South Africa off. You look at the situation now, where most people would run a mile before they put any money into a platinum mine. These Canadian investors, you know, they’re not even South Africans, and they’re listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, this is Ivanplats. They’re prepared to build a new mine in Limpopo, and probably in a few years, we’ll be saying: “No, no, no, they’re ripping us off!” But you know they are putting in like R3-billion.
Gwala: They see an opportunity.
Creamer: They see an opportunity, R3-billion here, they are not even coming near the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, because they know we’re risk averse, here in South Africa. You know we don't go for these things, these fellows are looking at a very encouraging mining project. Its in the Platreef in Limpopo province and I’ve heard, Robert Friedland, who’s a very celebrated explorer and discover, speak at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town on this very project at Limpopo and he waxes lyrical because, he said it’s so rich, so large, so high-grade and it’s going to be highly mechanised. You know it's an underground operation, and its close to Mogalakwena. Mogalakwena is a wonderful mine, and that's in the Anglo Platinum stable. It’s so rich as well, that, you know in 2007/2008, they got their platinum for nothing. When I say that, it means that the money that they received form their nickel credits and the by-product credits, because there’s also nickel involved here, paid for the platinum, and now Robert Friedland with Ivanplats, listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange main board, as of this week, having raised this capital, R3-billion, has Ivanplats in a similar position, in a similar neighbourhood now to Mogalakwena, and looking to go ahead with a new project there. He’s not even ruling out the possibility of smelting and refining and is receiving backing on his initial public offering from some of the biggest investment banking institutions, so there is still confidence. Yet, South Africans are shying away from investing.
Gwala: Very interesting, it’s that good old risks-and-reward type situation. They see that yes, the risks are high, but the rewards are also handsome.
Gwala: Interesting, right then finally, Martin, pressure growing on the mining companies to adopt global best practice when it comes to the sector’s vexing migrant mining labour system.
Creamer: You know we can cry when it comes to migrant labour systems and the fact that we just haven’t even adopted global best practice. I mean migrant labour systems are obnoxious, they shouldn't be there, but where they are in the world, the work cycles are short, so that people can get home. You know, here we are, in 2012, and we still haven’t adopted best practice in the mining industry when it comes to migrant labour, and there is no excuse for that. I mean, if you go back to ‘Cry the Beloved Country’, that book, you know that was written in 1948. It’s a work of fiction, written in 1948, but if you go to pages 148 and 149, the only real-name character in there, and all the other names are fictitious, is that of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer. That’s the real-life person. They put his name in there, and they put words into his mouth, saying, you know, we don't want to ever have another Johannesburg with these hostels and this migrant labour and the families split apart.
Creamer: 1948, and that they get Sir Ernest to say, look, no no, we’re now going into this new field in the Free State, I’m gonna build a new goldfield and there we’re going to get rid of this idea of compounds, as they were called, and as a kid I used to go into those compounds, they were horrific, and we’re gonna have mine villages, you know, where a man can live with his wife and children etc, but, of course, that was 1948. This book was published in 1948, the year that the National Party came into power and introduced apartheid. So that put paid to that, but since 1994, we haven’t changed this migrant labour system. We’ve still got this yearly cycle, you cannot have a yearly cycle where you only go home at Christmas and Easter to your family. So obviously you’re gonna build another family, which is what happens. So you build a near-mine community, but then they exacerbated the whole thing and gave these “living-out” allowances and turned the whole place into a near-mine slum. So now I think, you know, the government, local authority and the mining industry and you know these traditional leaders, because they’re also losing out with the people who are not remitting their cash back to the rural areas, because they’ve got so many commitments up here and on the mines, I think they must all sit down and work out that at minimum, you’ve got to go for global best practice, you know, every fifteen days or every ten days people have either got to have a logistics system to get to their real homes, or you get rid of migrant labour altogether, and get rural families up to the mines. You cannot continue like this.
Gwala: Very, very vexing question is, as you point out, Martin.
Thank you very much Martin.
Creamer: It’s a great pleasure, Xolani.
Gwala: Thank you