Labour strife, safety concerns spur platinum mining mechanisation – by Ed Stoddard (Business Day Live – October 15, 2014)

Reuters – FOR decades, production in SA’s platinum mines has rested on the muscular shoulders of men risking life and limb to drill into the rock face with jackhammers.

Three years of labour upheaval and a political push to make the shafts safer and transform the low-wage workforce have set in motion a drive to replace such rock drillers with machines.

“Labour militancy is dictating our push to mechanisation and boardrooms will rubber stamp this stuff,” said Peter Major, a fund manager at Cadiz Corporate Solutions. The costly change is happening despite the obstacles thrown by geology, low platinum prices and capital constraints.

At Anglo American Platinum’s (Amplats’s) Bathopele mine near Rustenburg, west of Johannesburg, technology has already made rock drillers obsolete and hydraulic machines do the job, blazing an automated trail others are keen to follow.

Elsewhere in the platinum shafts, plans are afoot to roll out mechanisation, including at Amplats’s rival Impala Platinum, which recently sent a team to Bathopele to observe the layout — an unprecedented example of co-operation in an industry that has long been fiercely competitive and secretive.

Impala Platinum (Implats), Amplats and Lonmin, the world’s top three producers, are also partnering at Bathopele with mining products company Joy Global to develop rock-cutting technology, which would remove the need for blasting and rock drilling.

Joy Global CE Ted Doheny told Reuters in a phone interview from the company’s Wisconsin headquarters that implementation would take another five to 10 years.

Producers unite

The big three platinum producers are united as never before, having collectively faced a five-month wage strike by the hardline Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) this year, which pushed them to the brink and dealt a crushing blow to investor perceptions of SA’s mines.

The automation drive is under way: Amplats wants to sell off its conventional mines to focus on mechanisation, while Implats’s CE has said “we will mechanise where we can”.

The industry says the pivot to mechanisation was in the works even before Amcu’s emergence on the platinum belt, where it has poached tens of thousands of members from rival National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in a turf war that has killed dozens and unleashed the recent waves of labour unrest.

Also underpinning the drive has been calls from the government and ruling African National Congress for the industry to move away from the labour-intensive, low-wage model rooted in the apartheid era.

A government safety drive with the goal of “zero harm” has also triggered a scramble to find less lethal mining methods.

Unlike most of the mines in the area, where workers are bussed in or trudge on foot from grim shantytowns, Bathopele’s skilled and higher-paid employees drive themselves and its parking lot is full of gleaming new cars and pick-up trucks.

“We actually have a parking problem here, we are running out of space,” said one employee.

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