Australian company West Wits Mining is breathing new life into a historical mining area, writes Leon Louw.
The August wind in Johannesburg is dry, cold, and it cuts right through the bone. With its onset, those living amid the dusty dumps and remains of a once thriving gold mining industry shut their doors and their windows and hope they are sheltered against the swirling winds of change. Although the icy winter wind carries with it a perpetual layer of dust on the windowsill, it also brings hope. It cleanses the air and prepares the City of Gold for dreamy, hot, and dust-free spring days.
Many miners in Johannesburg have faced these winds, stuck it out and made money, or packed it up and left for greener pastures. Big names built empires on the most prolific gold-bearing reef the world has ever known. Randlords like Cecil John Rhodes, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, and Barney Barnato shaped the future of this mining town. It was to become a megacity, built on gold, so to speak. Later on, companies like JCI, Durban Roodepoort Deep, Harmony Gold, AngloGold Ashanti, and more recently, Sibanye Gold, would become synonymous with a thriving industry during a gold mining super-boom the world is unlikely to experience again.
Modern mining legends like Bernard Swanepoel, Neil Froneman, and Mark Bristow breathed life into what was slowly becoming a degraded ‘moon landscape’ in the 1990s and early 2000s. By then, the gold-bearing seams of the West, Central and Eastern basins had been relentlessly worked for more than 120 years, and illegal miners, colloquially known as zama zamas, started scavenging the leftovers.
A few years ago, loitering gangs of zama zamas controlled West Wits, off Main Reef Road, to the east of Roodepoort. As a result, this has affected the community, developers, land owners, and the City of Johannesburg, among others. The area forms part of the Sol Plaatjies township.
Roger Kebble and his son Bret’s companies, Durban Roodepoort Deep (DRD) and Johannesburg Consolidated Investments (JCI), once owned this part of the Central Basin. In fact, West Wits played a pivotal role in the rise and eventual demise of the Kebble empire. Since 2008, an Australian company called West Wits Mining owns the prospecting rights to what was once the property of Roger Kebble’s DRD. Since 2001, when DRD (after Kebble’s tenure) got rid of what was becoming a hot potato, the gold embedded in the prolific seams of the Witwatersrand were almost exclusively mined by the zama zamas.
A sprawling informal settlement inhabited by the zama zamas now marks the spot where DRD housed their workers, and where other mining infrastructure sterilised the underground riches. When this infrastructure was dismantled, the underground pillars that kept it intact and the shallow reefs (in some places only 10m below surface) became easy picking for the hardened zama zamas. Hundreds of small tunnels, abandoned shafts, and numerous raises scar the landscape and are irresistible targets for desperate people. The zama zamas live a hard life in atrocious conditions. Moreover, while these reefs remain unmined, the landowners, about 28 of them, are not allowed to develop their properties.
But in the past year or two, the number of illegal miners has dropped significantly. This is because Michael Quinert, chairman of West Wits Mining, and his team of experts have started mining and rehabilitating the area, subsequently permanently plugging the historical access to these deposits.
In the shadow of Circular Shaft
The core of Quinert’s team consists of Eddie Milne, now operations manager of the mining operations, as well as Manie Swart and Rob Handley, geologists at Shango Solutions, both well versed in the Witwatersrand formation. Milne is an old hand at cleaning up historical gold mining areas and is well known in the Western Basin, where he was part of another Australian outfit, Mintails, who did the same just west of Krugersdorp. Mintails, in fact, acquired the prospecting mining license for West Wits soon after DRD sold out. They still hold the licenses to mine the historical dumps and tailings dams in the area. Mintails, however, once listed on the ASX, experienced financial difficulties and was very recently sold to an unknown buyer. Milne knows the area like the back of his hand and together with geologist Swart, who worked at Durban Deep for many years, they form a formidable team.
Beneath the long shadows of the historical Durban Deep Circular Shaft’s headgear, which is one of the few circular mining shafts ever to be sunk in South Africa, West Wits has started trenching the Kimberley Reef, which, at Sol Plaatjies, dips at a 40-degree angle. A big chunk of the area has been mined, plugged, and compacted and will soon be seeded as part of the rehabilitation.
On surface, the rusted headgear is a constant reminder of a long, sometimes fortuitous and, at times, tumultuous history. West Wits plans to refurbish the old infrastructure to access what will remain of the reefs in five or six years’ time. In the meantime, they will continue to unearth the easy, shallow pickings by means of opencast mining — a method South African gold mining companies have always shied away from. The mining method includes no blasting.
Ripping open the surface revealed the extent of mining that has taken place here since 1886. A labyrinth of tunnels and all other means to access the reefs is testimony to the ingenuity of man in his search for gold. Many stories have been told over the past century; most profoundly though, the Kebble ghost lingers. Brett Kebble was killed at the end of one of the most extraordinary stories ever to be written about mining on the Rand. And Durban Deep is part of that story.
The Kebble link
When Roger Kebble was chairman of DRD, the shafts at Durban Deep Mine produced between 65 000 and 85 000 ounces of gold per year. Brett Kebble owned the adjacent Randfontein Estates, which is today the Doornkop Mine owned by Harmony Gold. In a highly complex and (it has to be said) shady deal, the two Kebbles agreed, verbally, to consolidate these properties. They knocked down the processing plant at Durban Deep to access the gold dust embedded in its foundations and planned to send their ore to the Randfontein plant.
But before they could, Bernard Swanepoel and Harmony won a hostile bid for Randfontein Estates and, as a result, sterilised the Durban Deep footprint, since Swanepoel’s processing plants, only 7km away, were off-limits. After that, DRD ventured into all sorts of exotic destinations to save face, but failed dismally. Eventually, a lawyer from the small Free State town of Philippolis took the reins, sold all DRD’s underground mines, and transformed the company into the most efficient surface mining operation in the world.
Neil Pretorius is probably another name that will be remembered long after all the mine dumps on the Rand have disappeared. Pretorius has extensive knowledge of the Johannesburg area, but most of all, knows how to negotiate the harsh legal battlefield that companies like West Wits often face when attempting to mine what is left of the reef. Pretorius sits on the West Wits board.
West Wits has encountered fierce opposition from various quarters in the area. Quinert and his team deny allegations of blasting, dust, and noise. In fact, they have brought in new equipment, called Xcentric Rippers, to replace drilling and blasting.
Joburg – a stunning goldfield
“We see the area as terribly neglected, and mining can be a constructive process to assist with that,” says Quinert, adding that it is a misconception that the gold in the Witwatersrand is mined out.
“If we look at it in comparison to what we have in Australia, and other areas that we have operated in, this is a stunning goldfield,” he says. More than 40% of all the world gold, ever, has been produced within the boundaries of the city of Johannesburg.
Although most traditional mining companies have moved out of the area, Quinert believes there is a lot of gold left. And he is not alone: a group of geologists has just rethought the formation of the Witwatersrand goldfields, and they are convinced that the best is yet to come.
“We have gone down to 400m over most of the area; in some cases, we have opened up the surface to greater depths. But by using a shallow mining approach with conventional methods, we have delivered a JORC Resource of 3.7-million ounces at 3.6 grams per tonne. There are mines in Australia raising money with about half of that resource,” says Quinert.
The two historical mines that constitute the West Wits area, Durban Roodepoort Deep and Rand Leases (called the Soweto Cluster), have produced more gold than Kalgoorie, the flagship of Australian gold mining. The old mines in South Africa kept immaculate records, and it is this data that provided most of the information necessary for West Wits to make a viable case. However, the company spent a lot of money on drilling when they brought in Australian geologists eight years ago and is still using some of that information. Those geologists were highly paid, though, and also lived the high life — to the detriment of the company. West Wits now mostly uses South African geologists and recently completed a drilling project close to the Circular Shaft, which proved positive.
Ripping the reefs
West Wits has also completed some trenching, which is done at right angles to the reef to locate the outcrop and define the stratigraphy. Over billions of years, the Witwatersrand system has faulted and shifted, so the reef is not always uniform, which makes trenching important. “Our trenches are about two metres deep and probably about 40–50m long,” says Swart.
West Wits will mostly mine the Kimberley Reef and the Bird Reef, but also some of the Main Reef and the South Reef, north-east of Main Reef Road. The Main and South Reefs were, of course, targeted mostly by mining companies throughout the years, and formed the backbone of the South African gold mining industry for more than 120 years. So, although there are pockets of the Main Reef left, it won’t be the number one target.
The total area covers about 6 000ha and the surface footprint of mining will only cover less than 2%. In the first phase, West Wits will be using opencast methods to mine. “The pits will not be there for more than six to eight months, before we backfill and rehabilitate them again,” says Quinert. In total, there will be about eight open pits. After four to five years, the operation will refurbish the old Circular Shaft, and work will continue underground. The plan is to have two entry and two exit shafts, and each shaft will cover an area of about 20m. According to Milne, there is no need to build a processing plant on site, as there are many plants in the vicinity that are not running at full capacity. Currently, West Wits is recovering about 900–1 000 ounces per month from what they call the Sol Plaatjie site, and that ore is sent to Sibanye Gold’s Ezulwini plant, about 40km west of the operation.
“The four Spanish Xcentric Rippers enables us to mine the reef at surface without blasting. We have been operating at Sol Plaatjie for over 12 months without blasting at all,” says Milne. The reefs at this site are very shallow and the deepest the machines have mined is about 30m below surface. “The rippers are running at close to an 80% efficiency, which is what you would expect from a traditional load and haul operation. Although the life expectancy of an excavator is longer (up to 15 000 hours), the ripper comes in a discount of almost R7-million,” says Milne.
The rippers, of which there are two 50-tonners and two 80-tonners on site, open up about 200m² of the surface per hour. Drilling and blasting costs about R20 per square metre, in comparison to the R8 a square metre achieved with the technology. “Since we started mining the Kimberley Reef with these four rippers, we have mined more than 1.5 million tonnes of material, which we separate into waste stockpiles and reef stockpiles,” says Milne. The mining contractor, ALS Group, uses 40-tonne and 50-tonne excavators and a fleet of Bell B30 ADTs to load and haul the material. The 40-tonne excavators are used for the reef, while the 50-tonners are employed to load the waste. There are three ADTs for each excavator.
Icy winds of change
Quinert says that West Wits would eventually produce about 30 000–35 000 ounces of gold per year from the opencast operations in the first three to four years, while it hopes production will peak at close to 80 000 ounces per year once the underground operations are in full swing. The mine has an estimated life of 30 years.
“We will mine to depths of only about 400m because of the water table. There are certain areas where there is a lot of unmined reef at about 1 500–2 000m, but the water might be a problem. The flooded water table is a result of the historical mines. However, by creating a water pillar, it is possible to mine these areas. Harmony Gold is doing exactly that at its Doornkop mine, where they are mining as deep as 2 000m despite the water. But they are doing this behind a ‘water barrier’ or ‘water pillar’. Our plan, though, is to stay shallow — it is easier and less costly. We’ll keep it basic,” says Quinert.
West Wits is still waiting for a mining right application to be approved for the entire area, and there are two mining permit applications for two discrete projects that are still outstanding. The mining currently taking place at Sol Plaatjies follows official instructions from the Department of Mineral Resources to undertake remediation. This is separate from other mining rights that West Wits is pursuing. The plan, according to Quinert, is to start mining in quarter two of 2019.
West Wits is soldiering on despite the fierce opposition, and bad press, that the project has evoked. “We believe West Wits can improve the living conditions for all people in the area, through mining and rehabilitating these extremely degraded areas. All we ask is that we be given a fair go,” says Quinert. Maybe the early and gusty August winds do indeed bring change. And maybe it opens up a new chapter in the often-troubled book about the mining history of the Witwatersrand.