Neal Froneman. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
Neal Froneman. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

Hundreds of thousands of jobs can be saved and the closure of large swathes of SA’s gold mining industry can be staved off by mining the deposits with smart new machines day and night, Sibanye Gold CEO Neal Froneman said.

Speaking in his capacity as vice-president of the Chamber of Mines, of which most of SA’s gold mines are members, Froneman said the industry would experience a sharp decline in production by the end of this decade and "die out almost completely by 2033" if those operations continued to use expensive, labour-intensive mining methods that had barely changed in a century.

An estimated 200,000 gold mining jobs would be lost if that happened, he said.

"The picture changes radically with mechanisation: annual output persists at current levels until at least 2025 and until 2030 or even beyond with 24-7, mechanised operations," he said, saying mines could continue until at least 2045.

SA has been the single-largest source of gold and was mining 1,000 tonnes a year in the 1970s, but that has come off precipitously as mines have aged, become deeper and more dangerous and had a decline in grades — the amount of gold in each tonne of ore hauled to the surface.

SA’s gold output has dropped to about 150 tonnes a year and could fall to just 50 tonnes in five years, but it still has 50% of the world’s known gold resources, said Peter Major from Cadiz. Employment has fallen by 480,000 people from a peak of 600,000.

To arrest the continued decline, South African gold-mining companies had to work together to find machines to access low-grade parts of their ore bodies that had been left behind because they were uneconomical to mine, or gold locked in rock between tunnels in giant rock pillars that are safety features underground, Froneman said.

There are an estimated 400-million tonnes of low-grade ore and a further 160-million tonnes of high-grade ore in pillars, while there are hundreds of millions of tonnes of ore below the depths currently being mined. AngloGold Ashanti’s Mponeng mine is the deepest in the world at 4km deep, while other mines in SA are 2km to 3km deep.

A low-grade mine with a current conventionally mined life expectancy of about four years, using semi-mechanised methods, could extend operations to 15 years and, with full mechanisation and 24-7 operations, to as much as 25 years, Froneman said.

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