The red sands of the Northern Cape – but what about the washing?

Our South African iron ore and manganese mines are mostly found in the rich Kalahari Basin, in the country’s Northern Cape Province, which is home to 80 per cent of the world’s manganese ore body. Approximately 95 per cent of the product produced is consumed in steel manufacturing, mostly in the form of alloys.

Nearly 70% of the South African iron ore operations are conducted by Kumba Iron Ore Limited – one of the world’s top suppliers of seaborne iron ore. Kumba operates three mines, Kolomela and Sishen in the Northern Cape Province and Thabazimbi in the Limpopo Province.

In Kumba’s case, it also benefits from what is known as the lump premium. The majority of the ore Kumba produces is lumpy rather than fine, meaning steel mills do not have to sinter the iron ore in their production processes. Another, if smaller, geological dividend is that the ore from Sishen has a low moisture content because the Northern Cape is so dry.

Open-cast or pit mining has become much more attractive and viable in South Africa, as it is more mechanised and less labour intensive. Transnet transported about 14.01 million tons of manganese in 2018/19, compared with the 9.6 million tons transported in 2016/17. The train takes about eight minutes to pass one by from start to end. Transnet SOC Limited recently launched a 375-wagon manganese train, which is a production train with the most number of wagons in the world. The train runs over a distance of around 861km, from Sishen to Saldanha and is 4km long. Running such a train means that rolling stock, as well as some infrastructure, needed to be upgraded to 30 tons per axle on the section between Hotazel (Love the name and very appropriate for the area) and Sishen.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the area and was very impressed at how Kumba Iron Ore, an Anglo American company, had in just over 10 years successfully managed to uproot, transport and integrate a Sishen mining village community of 3 437 people into the nearby town of Kathu. Well, almost. The project is 98% complete, and management says the negotiations with the remaining 2% of residents still occupying the almost ghost-town of Dingleton will be finalised in the very near term. To date, 507 of 517 households have been successfully moved 32km to replacement homes in the new purpose-built suburb of Siyathemba. The cost to Kumba has been in the region of R3 billion and forms part of the company’s plans for the expansion of its Sishen mine and to provide a better living standard for its employees. Kumba is on the verge of advancing technology that will unlock valuable ore from millions of tons of low-grade waste it generates every year, giving it options that could extend the life of its flagship Sishen mine. The technology, which was refined by Exxaro Resources, the 20% partner in the Sishen Iron Ore Company, entails using a specially created form of minuscule globules of ferro-silicon that enables Kumba to upgrade ore with a 40% to 48% iron content to the sought-after 64%-65% iron content that Kumba sells.

The area is famous for its red sands and they say that once you get the feeling of ‘the sand between your toes’ it is hard to leave. But this is more applicable to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a large wildlife Transfrontier park and conservation area that straddles the border between South Africa and Botswana, north west of the mining activities.

The area is very windy and, coupled with the open cast mining activities, a fine red dust has spread far and wide, leaving everything in its wake ‘red’. It is not a pretty sight and for the people and wild life (what is left) living in the proximity of the mine it must present a serious health hazard. The trees, the roads and crash barriers, the mine equipment – they are all red. But without the iron ore and manganese, where would steel mills and foundries be?