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One mining firm unfazed by S. Africa's troubles

Sibongile Khumalo
A small group of Anglo American Platinum workers who downed tools gather outside the Khomanani shaft on January 16, 2013, in Rustenburg. As mining firms appear to be rushing for the exit in South Africa, US titanium ore producer Tronox has weighed the risks and is seeking to deepen its South Africa footprint.

As mining firms in South Africa appear to be rushing for the exit, one company is bucking the trend by setting up new operations. It may prove a harbinger of things to come.

South Africa's mining industry, the bedrock upon which the country was built, is going through something like an existential crisis.

Thanks to a series of frequently violent strikes that halted production and slashed profits, investor confidence is plummeting faster than a broken shaft lift.

Leading platinum producer Anglo American plans to cut 14,000 jobs and shutter several operations.

The deadly wildcat strikes have cost the industry an estimated $1.2 billion (890 million).

If that were not bad enough, chatter about government nationalisation refuses to die down.

But US titanium ore producer Tronox has weighed the risks and is seeking to deepen its South Africa footprint.

The firm is developing an opencast mine on the sand dunes of Mthunzini, on the north coast of KwaZulu Natal province.

The $335 million titanium dioxide mine is expected to come on line by end of 2014. It could yield 190,000 metric tonnes of titanium dioxide ore per year, over a 12-year period.

There is undoubtedly treasure beneath the ground, but is Tronox ignoring the trouble above ground to the point of being foolhardy?

After all, Mthunzini residents had themselves -- unsuccessfully -- petitioned the courts to block construction arguing waste would ruin the pristine coastline.

The company, perhaps unsurprisingly, says the investment is a sound one.

"South Africa has some of the world's richest and largest mineral sands ore deposits and access to a skilled workforce," spokesman Bud Grebey told AFP.

The company entered South Africa in 2011, after merging with the Mineral Sand division of local firm Exxaro, so it knows the country well.

According to mining analyst Peter Major, Tronox's investment does not herald a new phase of investor confidence.

But it could point to a longer term trend of mid-size firms moving into South Africa, vacating the space left by the super-majors.

Most of the "large, rich, easy deposits have already been mined out or sterilised," he said.

"So the additional worry now about an unfriendly labour and government environment just compounds any other reluctance or hesitation a mining company might have about investing in South Africa."

But Major believes that South Africa still has mineral reserves that could be mined for at least another 150 years.

"Those deposits can still be attractive to medium-sized companies as long as the political and business environment here is attractive".

That may offer a glimmer of hope for an industry that employs 500,000 people and creates around nine percent of GDP.