Eskom blackouts threaten SA mining… and workers’ lives

By Felix Njini

(Bloomberg) – When South Africa’s state-owned utility announced record power cuts on Monday afternoon, Impala Platinum had two hours to hoist thousands of workers from 1 kilometre deep shafts.

“It was drastic, it makes life very difficult,” said Johan Theron, a spokesman for Implats. “We can’t operate like this but if we don’t cut the power, the national grid collapses.”

Johannesburg-based Implats was ordered to cut electricity usage to 55 megawatts from about 300 megawatts, forcing it to reduce power to furnaces by 90% and shutting down refrigeration and compressor plants.

The escalating crisis at debt-ridden Eskom down South Africa’s key mining industry for 24 hours, hitting gold and platinum producers that had been enjoying a renaissance on the back of higher metal prices. The rolling blackouts threaten to tip South Africa’s economy into recession and hobble miners already impacted by community protests and xenophobic violence.

“The world will still need the minerals and metals that South Africa has, but in the short term this is potentially damaging to investment prospects,” said Ross Harvey, an independent economist and mining analyst. “For as long as Eskom remains in its current state, we are not going to see the kind of investment that we need.”

Power is critical to keep South Africa’s mines running and Eskom is responsible for supplying 95% of the electricity used by the continent’s most advanced economy. Some companies, such as Anglo American Platinum can minimise losses by using expensive diesel generators, but they remain dependent on the utility’s base load supply.

Stability needed

“South Africa urgently needs to stabilise Eskom,” said Jana Marais, a spokeswoman for Amplats. “Frequent load curtailments pose a risk to our operations as they risk the safety of our people and can lead to loss of production and revenue.”

Worse outages could force smelters and refineries to throttle back production and further impact underground mines, RMB Morgan Stanley analysts including Christopher Nicholson said. Electricity supply disruptions raise the costs of operating furnaces, RMB said.

“Should the incidences of blackouts worsen, there isn’t much the industry can do to mitigate the risk, and it will impact production,” RMB said.

Eskom’s power cuts entered an eighth day on Thursday.

Implats, along with Sibanye Gold, Petra Diamonds and Harmony Gold resumed operations on Wednesday as Eskom scrambled to repair broken plants.

Sibanye, which requires about 750 megawatts to run its platinum and gold operations, still doesn’t have sufficient power, said spokesman James Wellsted. The company has been forced to postpone pumping water from underground mines or reduce ventilation to manage supplies, he said.

“It’s still very uncertain and you can understand why investors are being reluctant to invest,” Wellsted said.

Other concerns

Output of key platinum metals declined 4.8% in October from a year earlier, Statistics South Africa said on Thursday. The decline came after a week of power cuts that month.

When platinum producers reached a wage settlement last month with the biggest and most militant labour union, it appeared to pave the way for them to capitalise on record palladium prices and for some to resume paying dividends next year. While the power cuts have fuelled the rally in palladium by raising the prospect of an even bigger supply deficit, more problems are piling up for miners.

Eskom’s struggles are the biggest drag on South Africa’s economy, but other issues have contributed to business confidence slumping to the lowest level in two decades. Community protests are leading to huge losses, and xenophobic violence is sapping investor appetite for South Africa, Amplats Chief Executive Officer Chris Griffith said in October.

Rio Tinto Group’s Richards Bay Minerals shuttered its operations on December 4 after violence in surrounding communities led to an employee being shot on the way to work.

RBM is assessing the situation and “will return to normal operations when it is safe and sustainable to do so,” a spokesman for the company said. “The safety of our employees is our number one priority.”