Somewhere deep in the bushveld, on the border of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, is an operation that could be the prototype of South Africa’s mining future.
Northam Platinum’s Booysendal mine near Mashishing, formerly Lydenburg, is a fully mechanised mine that is staffed by highly skilled workers and operated using the most advanced machinery and technology.
The mine is burrowed into the mountainside, enabling mining vehicles to drive in and humans to walk into the vast cavern.
It is the central part of Northam’s ambitious expansion drive, which saw the miner plough R5.6 billion into the complex at a time when the economy and the platinum sector were faltering.
The different sections are connected by a RopeCon, a conveyor belt usually used in mountainous ski territory in Europe.
The RopeCon, sustained by a series of towers at various intervals, transports raw material from the mine site to the processing plant.
Because of the highly technical nature of the mining operation, recruits for the Booysendal mine – all local – had to possess at least a matric level education.
International experts from countries where mechanised mining is more common were brought in to train workers to use the sophisticated machinery.
With cost increasingly becoming an issue, operations like Booysendal are increasingly being seen as the model of how mines will look in the future.
In addition to a lower cost structure, mechanisation allows for multiplying the production in a much shorter space of time.
The catch, however, is that topography, depth and rock strength will not allow all mining operations to go this route. But platinum is definitely leading the way.