Lights out over Cape Town

AS POWER issues look set to impact South Africa's mining industry - especially its massive gold industry - the stage is set for other countries to benefit from its misfortune. Kate Haycock reports from the well-lit 2008 Mining Indaba.
Lights out over Cape Town Lights out over Cape Town Lights out over Cape Town Lights out over Cape Town Lights out over Cape Town

 

Kate Haycock

Despite an upbeat presentation at the 2008 Mining Indaba by business development vice president Richard Duffy, AngloGold Ashanti was the first South African gold miner to reveal the potential scale of its losses.

Late last week the second-biggest gold miner in the world said it expected to lose at least 400,000oz in 2008 as a result of the power cuts.

And there is little doubt that other gold miners in the region will also see production fall as they are forced to live with the best-case 90% power solution being touted by the South African Government as it struggles to keep the lights on across the country.

Eskom, the country's beleaguered government-run power utility, said it would provide miners with 90% of their normal power supply.

At this stage no one knows how much production will be affected, especially as doubts remain as to Eskom's ability to provide even 90% power supply securely, especially in the wake of the blackouts that gripped South Africa in past weeks.

While the official presentations at Indaba made little mention of these issues, the power supply debacle was on everyone's lips at the stalls and the numerous after-conference gatherings.

And not just because of the effects on mining - blackouts trapped several hundred people atop Cape Town's famed Table Mountain on the Saturday before Indaba, and also reportedly threatened the supply of jet fuel to the city just as Indaba wound to a close.

The lights managed to stay on during the conference, but newspapers were running stories on special phone-in meters that will enable people to cut down their personal usage, while restaurant reviews advised diners to take their own candles to some of South Africa's top eateries.

The Government line on the power cuts is that with a little scrimping and saving, South Africa can ride out the next five or so years with a reasonable growth rate while Eskom scrambles to get its megawatt capacity up to the levels required.

As part of her keynote speech at Indaba, mineral and energy affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica assured the industry that the Government was working toward solving the issue.

"We urge all of the current miners to continue their commitments to be energy efficient and innovative in their respective mining operations, while we persist in securing adequate supply in the medium term," she told the conference.

The minister also said that energy efficiency measures introduced by the Government would allow for economic growth, but that it would be around 3% in the next few years, down from 6% previously forecast.

But privately, many attendees at Indaba viewed this optimistic projection as nonsense, and there was an air of pessimism about the nation's ability to cope with the crisis.

The country is already suffering a brain drain as young educated South Africans flee to greener pastures in Australia and other nations.

This has apparently caused a shortage of qualified engineers who will be needed to bring the nation's power supply back to normal levels.

There has also been an influx of refugees into the country from places such as Zimbabwe, and while no one seems exactly sure how many people are living in South Africa illegally, the additional population is also straining the power grid.

But South Africa's loss could be a boon for miners elsewhere, particularly in gold and platinum, where the country dominates global production.

Certainly, many Australian gold plays setting up shop in other African nations and presenting at Indaba spoke at length about their power deals, with companies like Resolute Mining, CGA Resources, Equigold and Centamin Egypt - all hoping to be in production this year - noting their secured power deals in Burkina Faso, Egypt and other countries in the north and west of the continent.

Another silver lining from the power issue is for mining suppliers with innovative solutions to help miners in South Africa ride the turbulent times ahead. The Agrekko stand was booming as the company, which supplies generators and other power solutions to the industry, became the first port of call for anyone interested in off-the-grid solutions.

The South African power crisis - which impacts on the country's inextricably linked next-door neighbours Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia - could also create further opportunities for emerging coal plays in Africa.

During the week, Rio Tinto talked up the discovery of a major thermal coal deposit in South Africa which could support a large power plant; Western Australian company Aviva announced a major thermal coal resource in Botswana; and Riversdale Mining said it was investigating the use of thermal coal from its Moatize project in Mozambique for a power station that could send electricity down the line to South Africa.

But it's not a lack of coal that has seen the lights go out across South Africa - the country still has massive reserves of thermal coal - it is a lack of power stations, and these are not built overnight or cheaply.

They require time and capital, and no one knows whether there is enough of either to lessen or avert the power crisis.

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