The great platinum story

13th August 1999 By: System Author

Dr Hans Merensky Dr Hans Merensky was born in 1871, less than 50 km away from the farm Maandagshoek where the first platinum deposits from the Bushveld Complex were found.

He later relocated with his parents – German missionaries – to Botshabelo outside Middelburg, Mpumalanga.

Merensky completed his tertiary education in Germany with a degree in forestry and geology, after which he returned to South Africa around the turn of the century.

In Johannesburg he set up practice as a consulting geologist and mining engineer.

Merensky discovered the Merensky Reef, Alexander Bay diamond fields and pioneered the development of the Orange Free State goldfields during the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1938 he discovered the world’s largest deposit of chromite near the Olifants River.

Several other deposits, such as vermiculite, phosphate and asbestos were located by him.

Merensky died at his model conservation farm near Tzaneen, Northern Province, in 1952, leaving him insufficient time to see the full measure of his discoveries.

South Africa this year celebrates 75 years since the discovery in 1924 of the largest platinum reserve in the world in the Bushveld Complex, Northern Province.

Since then, around 55-million ounces of platinum have been mined in South Africa, which, at the current platinum price, translates into US$20-billion in sales, estimates Mintek president Dr Aidan Edwards.

Another US$10-billion can be added for related metals, such as palladium, rhodium and ruthenium, totalling some R180-billion.

Solidly rising world demand for platinum further augurs well for the future of South Africa, which supplies 75% of world consumption.

Here Mining Weekly records the main events in the history of the local platinum industry. The first significant discovery of platinum, in the Bushveld Complex, was made by Andries Lombaard in 1924, while panning in a dry river bed on the farm Maandagshoek north of Lydenburg, Mpumalanga.

His finds were reported to the man who later became known as the father of the South African platinum industry, Dr Hans Merensky, who was a consultant at the time in Johannesburg.

Merensky briefly visited Lombaard on the farm and returned to Johannesburg, some report to register ‘discoverer’s rights,’ and others say to raise more funds for continued exploration or both – reports vary.

Meanwhile, Lombaard and a team continued prospecting in rivers on the farm as apparently agreed with Merensky.

Merensky joined Lombaard again in August and they found some alluvial platinum.

More importantly, a number of ultra basic pipes were found – these are known to be disorderly bodies cutting across the layering in the critical zone, but initially Merensky’s conclusion was that he was dealing with platinum mineralisation in a concordant layer in the Bushveld Complex.

He possibly prospected for other layers.

“This model – correct as it turned out to be – was based on an incorrect understanding of the geology of the first platinum discoveries on Mooihoek,” tells the Platinum Industry’s Professor of Igneous Petrology Grant Cawthorn.

This came to light during Cawthorn’s recent re-evaluation of the events around the discovery, which included previously published records as well as an unpublished company report by Merensky in 1924.

Merensky returned again to Johannesburg in August, while the Lombaard-led team continued prospecting.

It was in this period that Lombaard’s team discovered the first outcrop of what was named the Merensky Reef.

Who exactly discovered the reef remains a mystery, as samples were panned a distance away from exploration sites due to the lack of water.

Nevertheless, a rapid development of mining operations ensued including mainly developments by Rand Mines, Consolidated Gold Fields and Johannesburg Consolidated Investments.

A pictorial map visualising the future, published in a mining and industrial publication in 1925 depicted the nearby town of Steelpoort as outgrowing the current status of Johannesburg as the mining and industrial capital of South Africa.

“At this stage, platinum found its use primarily in chemical hardware such as crucibles, jewellery and dentistry,” says Cawthorn.

He continues that, although other platinum- group metals, such as rhodium and palladium, could be distinguished at this stage, there was no application for them and they were probably used together with platinum.

Merensky also identified platinum mineralisation in the Potgietersrus area in 1925, in what is known as Plat Reef – these finds were made from the re-evaluation of ancient African communities’ iron-ore mining operations (to obtain red pigment).

Mining activities began in the shape of JCI-controlled Potgietersrus Platinums.

A year earlier Transvaal Platinum started exploiting the Waterberg platinum deposit, discovered by prospector Adolph Erasmus, but it proved to be of little economic significance.

Mining also started on the western sector of the Bushveld Complex, near Brits, by Rustenburg Platinum Mines (RPM).

The beginnings of a co-ordinated world marketing organisation were noted in 1903, which included the still-thriving UK company Johnson Matthey, whi ch was also the refiner of South African platinum until the 1940s.

However, a dispute involving Russia with other members led to Russia dumping the metal on the market, causing a massive price collapse and dampening marketing activities in 1927.

Consolidated Platinum was later established in the UK for marketing and research purposes, but the company was liquidated in 1946 and all activities transferred to Johnson Matthey.

The world’s fledgling platinum industry was brought to a very abrupt end by the Great Depression of 1930.

Steps were taken to rationalise the local platinum-mining industry and RPM was established as the main producer.