Experts say the developed world is mostly to blame for climate change, and with global attempts to mitigate this crisis South Africa’s solution and profits cannot come at the cost of those living close to platinum mines.

Gilbert Moela awakes to the sound of a mining machine, the same noise the mining-affected communities activist falls asleep to at night. Moela lives 1km from the Bokoni Platinum Mine in his Limpopo village. 

In 1923, another man, Adolf Erasmus, discovered part of the world’s largest platinum group metals (PGM) deposit in South Africa’s then Transvaal region. The country has about 80% of global PGM reserves, according to the Minerals Council South Africa. Erasmus’s discovery became the catalyst for the industry that is Moela’s lullaby and his alarm clock nearly one century later. 

South Africa is centred on the extraction and use of minerals for “energy to power the economy”, said environmental attorney Louis Snyman. This is known as the Minerals Energy Complex (MEC). The economy has relied for more than 50 years on the MEC, specifically coal – to which a significant proportion of jobs is dedicated, he said. “The romance with coal,” however, ”is starting to die off”. 

Coal combustion releases greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide (CO2), said Sarah Roffe, an agroclimatology researcher at the Agricultural Research Council. These “dirty emissions” store heat, acting as a blanket and raising Earth’s temperature, she added. This is the main cause of climate change, according to the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (Cop26). Reducing coal reliance is a global affair. It was noted at Cop26 that over 90% of global GDP is committed to achieving net zero CO2 emissions. 

South Africa is entangled in coal reliance, being the 13th largest CO2 emitter globally. Its PGM abundance, however, could end this situation and mitigate climate change, with the added incentives of a healthier environment and potential economic gain. 

The PGM industry has significant growth potential, with Minerals Council South Africa’s National Platinum Strategy predicting a GDP contribution by it of R8,2 trillion by 2050. Platinum is vital for the renewable energy sector, said Wits Mining Institute’s Ingrid Watson, whose focus is on the environmental and social aspects of responsible mining. 

Platinum to fuel the future 

Platinum is a key element in fuel cells, which use hydrogen to create clean and efficient electricity for transport and power storage systems, according to the US department of energy. A World Bank Blogs post explained that ”green hydrogen” is created using renewable energy to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. “Hydrogen fuel cells emit only water, addressing critical climate challenges as there are no carbon dioxide emissions,” the department said. This makes fuel cells and hydrogen ”clean”, but obtaining their key element has proved to be environmentally damaging. 

Communities living adjacent to mines endure degraded environments and potentially more severe climate change effects than elsewhere, said Watson. Moela’s community is immersed in this degraded environment, in Sekhukhune District Municipality, the heart of the mine’s operations.

Edwin Matlou, a resident in Moela’s village, lives just 500m from the mine. He told Wits Vuvuzela how mining has damaged the once green environment. Matlou recalled growing up in Monametse, a village with trees and grass off which livestock could survive. There is now little grass to feed on and it is, he thinks, tainted with chemicals and dust from mining operations.

These sheep in Sekhukhune District Municipality, Limpopo in October 2022 are forced to graze on a barren piece of ground full of litter behind the old Merensky Shaft. Photo: Tannur Anders 

Alex Lenferna is the elected secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition (an alliance of climate-focused organisations), which works closely with the non-profit organisation, Sekhukhune Combined Mining Affected Communities. Lenferna said the municipality is an example of how mining can affect water.

Available water tastes salty due to mining operations, said Matlou, and the community lacks water purification facilities. These water conditions were the grounds for community protests on Tuesday, October 18, 2022, when residents demanded that the mine supply adequate water.

Despite these negative environmental impacts, the Minerals Council welcomed the fuel cell and hydrogen economy, which presents South Africa with potential benefits such as increased platinum demand and job creation. 

The country also released its Hydrogen Valley Final Report in October 2021, detailing the partnership between the department of science and innovation and three companies including Anglo American, one of the largest PGM producers and a former co-owner of the Bokoni mine. 

The report noted that demand segments from eThekwini to Mogalakwena will be linked to cost-effectively produce hydrogen, increase its production, reduce infrastructure costs and aid in South Africa’s decarbonisation goals. Global interest in hydrogen was also noted, which could position the country as an energy exporter.

The country’s fuel cell and hydrogen industry is, however, underdeveloped compared to some Asian counterparts, said the Mineral Council, which suggested the technology be demonstrated abroad to drive local and global demand.

“The romance with coal, however, is starting to die off”. 

Despite its potential profitability, in recent years “over 60% of South Africa’s platinum mining industry [was] loss-making”, the Minerals Council said. Losses were a function of many things, one being the recyclability of materials, said Lumkile Mondi, a Wits applied development economics lecturer and non-executive director of Sedibelo Resources Limited (a PGM mining company).

PGMs are finite and platinum within a fuel cell degrades over time, said a 2008 journal article. However, platinum’s recyclable quality could add to its charm in a world aiming to be more environmentally friendly. PGMs are durable and the fact that “a very little goes a very long way” was noted in the National Platinum Strategy, with 96% of PGMs being recoverable. 

The global move to climate-friendly energy solutions and the country’s PGMs endowment are advantageous. “People will come to us, we have the resource… we must use that leverage,” said Snyman. This leverage could take the form of increased employment. 

Platinum’s employment prospects 

South Africa’s Presidential Climate Commission, in its Just Transition Strategy Framework, admitted that the country’s coal value chain will be disrupted early on by global net zero commitments. Luphert Chilwane, media officer of mining union NUM, told Wits Vuvuzela that worker and community employment would be affected. The union welcomes climate change innovations, he said, but wants coal mines to be unaffected. 

Lenferna argued that the PGM industry could “re-employ [coal] mining workers so that they aren’t left behind” when seeking new employment. However, replacing coal-reliant jobs with those in the renewable energy sector is neither straightforward nor immediate, said Watson. 

South Africa’s PGMs mining industry is the country’s largest mining sector, with an export value of R90 billion and employment numbers around 200 000 in 2016, said the Minerals Council. Ideally, the industry is expected to create one million jobs by 2050, the Council added. This sounds promising in a country with 33,9% official unemployment rate from April to June, 2022, particularly for those living in underdeveloped communities on the platinum belt in South Africa’s North West and Limpopo provinces.

Matlou disagreed, saying those living in close proximity to the mine lose out on mining employment opportunities to those coming from further away. John Gowland, a retired manager of Rustenburg’s mining refineries, confirmed that mine labour is recruited from elsewhere, such as Eastern Cape.

Moela, the Mining Affected Communities United in Action’s communications person, agreed that socio-economic development sounds promising. When mining-affected communities hear ”socio-economic development”, “they are ready to let you mine in their community”, he said, but mining companies are not doing enough for the communities disrupted by their operations.

He recalled his involvement in a December 2021 climate change workshop hosted in his community. Attendees focused on socio-economic prospects rather than climate change. “I couldn’t blame them… because even when mining companies do workshops” they do not mention the effects of their operations on the climate, he said.

Moela believes these companies are ignorant about climate change and their contribution to the climate crisis. Companies that have climate change education plans use them to appease investors, he said.

African Rainbow Minerals acquired ownership of the Bokoni Platinum Mine in 2022, after Anglo American and Atlatsa Resources Corporation sold their holdings. Matlou hopes that “maybe with the new investor we’ll get through”. 

Making mining ‘green’ 

While platinum might hold the potential to mitigate climate change, mining it is unlikely to go entirely ”green”. Mining activities “will always have a negative impact on the environment; it’s just how that can be mitigated”, said Snyman. 

Most mining companies have decarbonisation commitments and strategies in place, said Watson. Anglo American, which produced a total of 130,9 metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020, is committed to reducing its CO2 emissions. 

Anglo American boasted, in its Environmental, Social and Governance Report 2021, that its “contribution to a low-carbon world is underpinned by the PGMs [it] produce[s]”, which are vital in sustainable technology. It also emphasised how low-carbon hydrogen can reduce fossil fuels to reach global commitments in keeping global warming to 1,5˚C.

The 1,5˚C mark is the global average temperature safety threshold above pre-industrial levels, said Roffe. Higher temperatures could result in “irreversible climate change”. Southern Africa faces an even graver threat as some projections suggest warming in the region at around 3,5˚C above pre-industrial levels by 2040, she added.

It was noted at COP26 that “[r]oad transport accounts for over 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions”. Anglo American has taken additional steps to mitigate its contribution. A May 6, 2022 press release noted its implementation of the biggest “hydrogen-powered mine haul truck”, which uses a hydrogen-battery hybrid to transport mined reserves at Mogalakwena Mine in Limpopo.

In the release, Duncan Wanblad, the company’s chief executive officer, said the prototype is part of Anglo American’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2040. If successful, global implementation could remove 80% of its open pit mines’ diesel emissions.

However, questions posed by Wits Vuvuzela to Anglo American on Friday, September 30, 2022 about the future of climate change and the company’s initiatives, have not been answered to date.

Funding a platinum future

Financing the transition to clean energy production will require high input costs, coming largely from the global north. South Africa has received $8,5 billion from international partners in the Just Transition Energy Partnership.

Receiving funding from the global north seems fair. “The developed world has contributed the vast majority of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that has accelerated climate change to a point where we [the developing world] receive these shocks”, said Snyman. The funding will go a long way if used properly, he added, with more money expected.

Some believe South Africa has a responsibility in the fair transition, by ensuring that mining-affected communities reap the benefits. “[A] community-centred approach instead of… [trying to] get as much foreign direct investment in the country at all costs [is needed],” said Snyman.

To be a leader in the transition, a large part of South Africa’s national budget should be allocated to addressing climate change as the nature of the economy is being restructured, Mondi said. Achieving this will exemplify how the crisis can be mitigated in the global south.

South Africa could also demonstrate how people and profit co-exist. The mining industry has a history of excluding mining-affected communities from decision-making conversations, said Lenferna, and failing to keep the promises made in social labour plans.

Matlou believes that the mine exploited his parents’ generation, who he thinks were unaware of the social labour plans. Mines should consult with the community before formulating these plans, he added. Matlou also thinks the mine is “generating enough to develop communities”, albeit in 2021 Anglo American disclosed that the mine had several years of cash losses.

Moela believes companies mine for profit and leave the community “with no development, with no anything”.

Some directors are aware of their responsibility in this crisis. “We [South Africa] are not responding to the current crisis; we’re responding to a different economy, a different world of low carbon, of normalisation of the climate and of making sure that the [position of the poor is not made more vulnerable]”, Mondi said.

The profitability of harvesting South Africa’s platinum cannot come at a cost to its environment or people. By focusing on people, the planet and profit, platinum’s promising solution could guarantee a good night’s sleep for not only Moela and his community, but future generations.

Nathaniel Makgolane and his grandchildren tend to their vegetable garden on October 29, 2022, in the Sekhukhune District Municipality, Limpopo. Makgolane was hopeful that it would rain in the following days. Photo: Tannur Anders 

FEATURED IMAGE: The rusty Merensky Shaft in the Sekhukhune District Municipality in Limpopo sits idle in October 2022. The Merensky Reef of the Bush Complex holds some of the world’s largest platinum group metals reserves. Photo: Tannur Anders