Business Maverick


Platinum Belt turnaround is a shining example of how to curb crime

Platinum Belt turnaround is a shining example of how to curb crime
Booysendal Northam Platinum Mine outside Lydenburg. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The mitigation of unrest on the eastern Platinum Belt is a model for the business-government crime initiative. It’s a microcosm of what can be done with public-private participation.

The setting was the upscale Walkersons Hotel & Spa near Dullstroom in Mpumalanga. The backdrop was one of rural tranquillity, with rolling green hills and trout rising in well-stocked dams.

To the north, the setting was anything but tranquil. The eastern limb of South Africa’s Platinum Belt was a roiling cauldron of social unrest, with roads leading to mines routinely blocked by protesters ginned up by shadowy procurement mafias and other criminal elements.

“Two years ago we were struggling with stoppages,” Northam Platinum CEO Paul Dunne told Daily Maverick. “Road blockages, hijacking of trucks, jackknifing of trucks and throwing away the keys, trucks getting torched.”

platinum belt turnaround

A site visit to the Booysendal Northam Platinum Mine’s milling station outside Lydenburg. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Daily Maverick visited the area in June last year when the unrest was still flaring on a regular basis. But the meeting at Walkersons, which had taken place the previous January, set in motion initiatives that would contain the flames that threatened to engulf mines.

Dunne and other CEOs met with Sydney Mufamadi, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s national security adviser. Also in attendance was Fannie Masemola, the current national commissioner of police who was then the deputy commissioner, along with top police officers from Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

“We explained, as the industry, that this was not just a problem for the mining companies but for the region and subsequently the country,” Dunne said.

Platinum group metals’ (PGMs’) prices at the time were near record highs and the huge profits the industry was reaping served as a lifeline for the cash-strapped National Treasury.

It was not just mining operations that were disrupted. Schools, clinics and non-mining businesses were also affected by the unrest.

platinum belt turnaround

A conveyor belt at Booysendal Northam Platinum Mine outside Lydenburg. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The upshot was a national deployment of public order police to deal with the turbulence.

“They are professional and know what to do in difficult situations. Their visibility did the trick as opposed to raw action, and it’s been quite effective. Since then, the national deployment is now withdrawn and the provincial police structures have taken on the mantle,” Dunne said.

Declining disruptions

The devil is in the data.

According to data Northam provided to Daily Maverick, the company’s mechanised Booysendal mine, straddling the Limpopo-Mpumalanga border, lost 24 days of production to blockages and unrest in 2020. That was a year of limited operation because of the initial pandemic lockdowns.

In 2021, that number soared to 47 at Booysendal.

According to data compiled by the Minerals Council South Africa, the so-called Southern Cluster Mines on the eastern limb — including Glencore’s chrome mines, Amplats’ Mototolo platinum mine and Northam’s Booysendal mine — lost R1.25-billion in revenue that year from social unrest and “community” protests.

“That was the peak, we were bleeding,” said Wonderboy Kekana, manager of Booysendal South.

In 2022, the corner began to turn, with 19 operational days lost at Booysendal to such strife — less than half of the 2021 total. In 2023 up to early November, the company had only lost nine days.

An employee near the chrome concentrates at Booysendal Northam Platinum Mine’s milling station outside Lydenburg. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The mining sector has also taken its own security initiatives. Daily Maverick journalists who visited Booysendal recently were shown a new security control room which had been set up since our previous visit.

A 24/7, 365-day operation, it has 16 screens on one wall with an additional six screens spread over two desks. These feed visuals from 270 cameras, which also monitor public roads and are linked to the vehicle identification network of the South African Police Service.

“This helps to identify the perpetrators and ringleaders of the protests,” Tollie Joubert, Northam’s head of security, told Daily Maverick.

Another screen monitors the locations of the trucks that carry PGM concentrate.

It is not just bolstered police and mine security which is paying dividends.

Northam and other mining companies in the region are going above and beyond their required social and labour plans to fix battered roads, which the mines also need to do for the sake of their operations — a classic case of the private sector stepping in when the state drops the ball.

Booysendal Northam Platinum Mine milling station outside Lydenburg. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Pointedly, on one such road — the pothole-riddled R577 — the companies have a sign proclaiming that they, not the local government, are behind the fix. The mining industry has spent R52-million to fix a stretch of the road and has committed to pay 60% of the almost R350-million to complete the job.

Business is taking the lead here, but the security initiative has been a partnership with police.

Poor service delivery

“This is criminal-type behaviour which needs to be distinguished from genuine community grievances in these rural areas where there is a high degree of need,” Dunne said about the protests.

“And the need arises from the fact that there are high levels of youth unemployment, very poor government service delivery and a lack of economic opportunity. It’s not a good backdrop and so the communities are easily mobilised by business forums using them for their own purposes.”

Such purposes would include getting a slice of the mining sector’s procurement business — whether or not you can deliver.

The current South African narrative is one of unfolding state failure. Eskom, Transnet, schools, public hospitals, the road networks, collapsed sewage plants, not to mention rampant crime — the state on many fronts does not get a passing grade.

But as the government and business embark on a collaborative partnership to tackle the main trifecta of woes weighing on the economy — the energy and logistics crises, and crime and corruption — it is worth noting that there are initiatives which show how this can be done.

“It’s a microcosm of what can be done with public-private participation on the security issue and it can be a model,” Dunne said.

Elsewhere, similar initiatives have yielded results in confronting the scourge of illegal gold mining in the Free State and the criminality that threatened Richards Bay Minerals, a unit of global mining giant Rio Tinto, in KwaZulu-Natal.

And now the South African military has been called in to combat illegal mining. It remains to be seen how that pans out.

Community flare-ups, often stoked by criminal elements, are in decline on the Platinum Belt’s eastern limb, giving the industry a much-needed break when PGM prices and profits have been cooling. With an election year looming, the industry is bracing for trouble linked to politics. But the progress so far shows what can be done. DM

Page 1. Front page DM168. 18 November 2023


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