Decline Shutters [South African] Mines – by Paul Burkhardt (Bloomberg News – December 17, 2013)

A half-dozen unemployed workers from the Blyvooruitzicht gold mine southwest of Johannesburg finish off the last scraps of a slaughtered cow in the searing October heat. Since losing their jobs in August, meals have become much less predictable.

The men stand near a small wood fire as the sun shines off a hill of extracted earth, in sight of a housing block that was supposed to be vacated. One holds a jaw bone over the flame, nibbles the meat off, and tosses the rest into a rusty barrel. What’s left of the carcass with its entrails spilling out is starting to dry at their feet.

The scene, resembling something from an apocalypse film out of Hollywood, is an extreme example of the impact gold’s 25 percent drop this year may have on towns around the world that are dependent on the precious metal. Mining companies have announced plans to shutter mines or reduce operations from Nevada and Peru to Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean, as gold heads toward its first annual loss in 13 years.

Blyvooruitzicht’s name means “happy prospect” in Afrikaans. These days that’s not such a sure thing. The mine’s most recent operator, Johannesburg-based Village Main Reef Ltd., cut funding and closed it last summer, letting go the remaining 1,700 workers. Plunging prices made it difficult to profitably extract gold, especially with electricity prices soaring and workers demanding higher wages.

No well-known mining companies have shown an interest in the mine, though this month buyers have surfaced, according to one of the liquidators.

Armed Scavengers

“We are not sleeping at night,” said Vuyani Matsorwana, 28, a father of two who says he lost his job in a round of lay-offs last year and was rehired weeks before Village pulled out.

Now idled, few of the men have resources to leave the area. Some were squatting in mine-owned housing near the once bustling shafts that took them deep below the earth’s surface in search of gold. They hang around the increasingly ghost-town-like grounds, stewing and watching out for armed scavengers who hunt for gold specks and less glittery metals like copper and iron.

South Africa, home to one of the world’s richest reserves, has been hit hard. Gold’s decline this year is the biggest drop since 1981. The gold mining industry eliminated 14,461 positions in the first nine months of the year, bringing the total remaining jobs to 126,587 in September, according to Statistics South Africa, the state statistics agency. The industry has been reeling from labor strikes that have swept the country.

Aging Mines

The end of gold’s 12-year bull run also compounded the impact of rising operating costs as mines aged and companies had to dig deeper to find better grades of ore. After more than a century as the world’s biggest gold producer, South Africa has slumped to sixth position.

The Blyvooruitzicht site, also known as Blyvoor, is situated in the Witwatersrand Basin in central South Africa, a geological deposit billions of years old that’s produced as much as half of all gold ever mined. Though production peaked in the 1970s, the area remains home to some of the biggest assets owned by South African companies including AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Harmony Gold Mining Co.

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