The concentrator plant at at Anglo American Platinum's Unki mine in Zimbabwe. Picture: SUPPLIED
The concentrator plant at at Anglo American Platinum's Unki mine in Zimbabwe. Picture: SUPPLIED

Against the backdrop of severe electricity constraints in Zimbabwe, Anglo American Platinum officially opened a $62m smelter at its Unki mine in that country.

The 193,000 ounces a year of platinum group metals (PGMs) mine in southern Zimbabwe built the 8.5MW furnace at the mine to produce matte, a high-value product, from its concentrate that had been sent to SA for processing.

The smelter sent its first matte to SA for refining in November 2018.

The smelter has guaranteed power supply from state-run utility Zesa, despite its recent curtailment of electricity production because of low water levels at Kariba dam and difficulties at its Hwange power plant.

PODCAST: Taking Care of Business - Is it all over for SA's gold mines?

Zesa is looking for additional imports of electricity from its neighbours but Zimbabwe and the utility are cash-strapped.

While Unki receives power from the national grid, it has an agreement with Zesa that it can import its own electricity if the need arises.

“Should it become necessary, Unki would be allowed to source the supply of electricity externally in order to make up any shortfall. However, we have no reason to doubt Zesa’s ability to deliver electricity to Unki,” said Amplats spokesperson Jana Marais, adding the mine was unaffected by power cuts that saw some parts of the country without electricity for 10 hours a day.

There were no plans to build a refinery in Zimbabwe yet.

“The conversations with the government of Zimbabwe were around smelting as our beneficiation. We’re not in any discussions with government around further refining,” Marais said.

At the opening of the smelter attended by Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa and mines minister Winston Chitando, the difficulties of operating a mine in Zimbabwe were raised by James Maposa, Unki’s chairman.

“The current 50% forex retention remains a challenge. Electricity tariffs, and some outstanding regulatory issues — in particular the indigenisation policy for the PGM sector — are all issues that we are engaging with government on and are confident that we’ll be able to find solutions to allow further growth of the sector,” Maposa said.

The government has scrapped its demands for 51% local ownership of mines but excluded platinum and diamond operations.

At a conference in April, Polite Kambamura, the country’s deputy minister of mines and mining development, said the two sectors would also be excluded from indigenisation laws. Legislation would be ratified in parliament during May.

Unki has been operational for 11 years and built its concentrator in 2010. It has increased output to 193,000oz of PGMs in 2018 from 131,000oz in 2014.