Picture: Boxer Ngwenya.

Johannesburg - Leeuwkop mine near Brits in North West could become mechanised if Impala Platinum (Implats) finds it is more profitable that way.

“Mechanisation is one of the options we are looking at,” Implats corporate relations group executive Johan Theron told Sapa on Friday.

“We will not take the project to the board for final approval if we are not able to prove that the mine will be profitable in future.”

Leeuwkop mine would take another 10 years to build and in the meantime the company was weighing up all its options.

“We are doing a study and upfront work, but no decisions have been made yet. What we have to factor in is what labour costs will be like 10 to 15 years down the line.”

Implats is the world's second largest platinum producer.

It's Mimosa, Two Rivers, and Zimplats operations are mechanised.

“We want to check if Leeuwkop can be like Two Rivers... some of the differences is that Leeuwkop would be cheaper,” said Theron.

“But we need to finalise the design of mine before taking it to our board.”

Theron said historically labour-intensive mining had always been considered the lower risk and cheaper option.

This had changed in the past two to three years, he said.

“As we do design work... it is clear that a mechanised mining operation is increasingly being seen as the lower cost, low risk option.

“We have not done the numbers for how much mechanisation would cost but these kind of shaft systems cost in the region of about R10 billion to put together.”

Mechanisation could be more efficient, improve safety, have a more profitable life span, and cost less, he said.

“If you had to go down this path, typically the mines would hire less people but they will be higher skilled people who would be doing more sophisticated work and earning more wages.”

Theron estimated that around 10,000 people would have been hired at Leeuwkop mine once operations began, but if mechanisation was carried out that number would drop to around 3000 people.

Workers at Impala's Rustenburg operations, Anglo-American Platinum (Amplats), and Lonmin downed tools on January 23 to push for a basic monthly salary of R12,500. They rejected a wage offer of up to nine percent.

The companies, in turn, rejected a revised demand from the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) that the R12,500 could be achieved over four years.

Talks to resolve the strike are being mediated by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation, and Arbitration.

Earlier this week, platinum mining bosses said the strike had caused irreparable harm as R10 billion in revenue had already been lost.

“These impacts are not only on the companies, but also on employees, local businesses, suppliers, and on communities. The financial cost... does not tell the full story,” said the chief executives of Implats, Amplats and Lonmin.

Amplats chief executive Chris Griffith, Implats chief executive Terence Goodlace, and Lonmin chief executive Ben Magara said mines and shafts were becoming unviable, people were hungry, children were not going to school, businesses were closing, and crime in the platinum belt was increasing. - Sapa