Although flushed with victory, the president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), Joseph Mathunjwa, should perhaps tone down the volume of his celebration. As they say, “beware of what you wish for”. And there is such a thing as a Pyrrhic victory.
Quite apart from the predictions of mechanisation, selling off platinum mines, not to mention the steady redundancies and loss of union dues that will inevitably result, there is another development that has been in the pipeline for some years: alternatives to platinum.
When substitutes are available at a lower price, Amcu miners can bet their mining boots and hard hats that platinum consumers will rush to buy them. That will mean mines will close and miners will not get their increases. It might not happen soon but sooner than one might think.
On the other hand, it is possible that Mathunjwa’s grasp of economics possibly mirrors that of Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambian government back in the 1980s and he thinks the mines can be made to carry on forever. One hopes not.
In terms of platinum substitutes, there are at present three main ones (others are in the works). They are rhenium, tungsten and molybdenum. Then there are the platinum group metals – palladium, iridium, rhodium and ruthenium – all four of which are cheaper than platinum. Granted, the known supply of these is less than that of platinum.
Then there is cobalt, plus manganese and iron. Of course, because there is lots of these metals, they are cheaper. Apologies for spelling this out, but one hopes union members will be reading this, although one suspects it is a faint one.
In fact, to digress for a moment, it is like the old days when there were many miners wanting jobs and they were cheaper than machines.
A team of chemists at Los Alamos in the US is working on cobalt as a substitute for platinum. They seem to be making the most progress, but many other chemists in laboratories around the world are beavering away. The higher the platinum price goes, the harder they will work. Funnily enough, strikes often make the price go up.
None of this is, of course, unknown to the management of platinum mining companies. Even before the Amcu strike blossomed into a five-month-long stand-off, Lonmin’s chief commercial officer, Albert Jamieson, told Parliament that manufacturers of catalytic converters for motor vehicles were already thinking of using palladium instead of platinum.
Other mining executives told the mineral resources portfolio committee in February that international platinum buyers were beginning to think that South Africa was “not a reliable source” of the metal – a diplomatic reference to strikes. This truth obviously went in one ear of Mathunjwa and out the other.
Catalytic converter makers, who are by far the biggest platinum customers, are also getting jittery, and those who make hydrogen fuel cells are looking for a cheaper alternative as well. Brown University scientists in the US have already made a graphene-cobalt substitute. They claim it is a better catalyst.
Brown University is also researching iron and manganese to do the job by fusing these metals with organic molecules. Heaven knows how they do it but if they succeed, it will be the cheapest catalyst substitute of all. Then there is the section of industry that makes pressure-sensitive materials like labels, stick-on graphics, commercial tapes, double-sided tapes, protective tapes, electronic tapes, and so on. All of them use platinum as a catalyst. They too are searching for substitutes.
It is not just university research laboratories that are on the hunt, large industrial firms are in it too. What all this boils down to is that Amcu leaders had better start praising those mining companies that offer skills training. They obviously know something that Amcu members do not.
General ignorance of economic reality was the prime mover of the longest strike in the industry. It would be a good idea if both sides took to economic education – starting with Mathunjwa.
n After nationalising the mines, the Zambian government had to remove dirt from the world’s second largest open-pit copper mine long after the copper ore was exhausted.
Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant.