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Without South African Chrome, There Can Be No Chinese Stainless Steel

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Coming off the N4 motorway near the small town of Marikana in South Africa’s platinum landscape, one almost immediately encounters the huge Tharisa Minerals mining operation. This gigantic open cast mine was started in 2009 for the production of chromium concentrate and platinum group metals (PGM) and has already produced several million tons of mineral output.

The Tharisa group holds a South African mining right for a period of 30 years, with the open-pit mining expected to continue until 2034, following which underground operations will be started.

The Tharisa open cast mine at Marikana near Rustenburg, South Africa. Photograph supplied by Ilja Graulich, Tharisa.

South African chrome exports earned over ZAR 21 billion in 2018, this at a time when the world’s economy was still lacking major growth trends. While South Africa’s mining industry has also suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, manganese, iron ore and chrome have seen real production growth over the last 15 years, with China being a major destination for these minerals.

“There could still be room for expansion of South African chromite and ferrochrome supplies to Chinese markets,” says Ilja Graulich, Head of Investor Relations and Communications at Tharisa. A major constraint is that the expansion of South African port facilities is needed, as well as greater security of electricity supply for processing additional chromite and the conversion of chromite to the more valuable ferrochrome for the Chinese market, says Graulich.

Mining operations at Tharisa mine near Marikana. Photograph supplied by Ilja Graulich, Tharisa.

The Tharisa mine (Tharisa Minerals (Pty) Ltd)  is one of South Africa’s largest chrome producers and exporters of metallurgical chrome concentrate, with around one million tonnes from this operation being sold into China and 300 kilotonnes of specialty chrome concentrate being sold internationally each year.

China is South Africa’s biggest export market for chromium and ferrochrome. These deposits are mined by a number of local and international chrome mining companies.  Despite this dominance, the South African chromium industry must work hard to maintain its status as the top chrome supplier to China, the world’s largest stainless steel producer.

South Africa holds about 70% of the world’s total chromite reserves, estimated at 175 to 200 million tonnes.

Graulich mentioned that as Tharisa is a new mine, it has been able to slot in directly with South Africa’s new mining order regulations and requirements linked to providing community benefits.  The mining group has identified many activities whereby local people are invited to provide services, thus creating economic opportunities for local communities.

Both the mining and processing production of chromite concentrate occurs on-site at Tharisa, while the PGM concentrate from Tharisa’s production is taken by truck to the surrounding smelters in the region.  The transport of chrome concentrate through the small town of Marikana to the railway depot is carried out by local haulers, and although it has an impact on the town and its roads, it nonetheless provides jobs for 600 drivers.

To transport the chromium concentrate from the Tharisa mine processing plant to the Marikana station, very large trucks from many trucking companies travel back and forth through the small town of Marikana. The drivers are part of local small enterprises. Photograph SJ Taylor, 2019.

The dedicated Marikana railway siding and yards facilitate the stockpiling, loading and transport of the chrome products to the port at Richards Bay and from there by ship to China. Some of the chrome ore is also road hauled from Marikana to Johannesburg where it is packed in containers and transported by road to the port of Durban and then taken by ship to Chinese ports.

Tharisa’s chromium concentrate stockpiles at the Transnet Marikana Railway siding, awaiting loading. Photograph SJ Taylor, 2020.

The Marikana railway siding was upgraded in consultation with Transnet to cater to Tharisa’s requirements. Arxo Logistics, part of the Tharisa Group, has the exclusive use of the Marikana Railway siding for loading chrome concentrates and manages the logistics, risks, and costs of transporting concentrates. Arxo manages the long haul transportation of chrome concentrates from the Tharisa Mine plant to international customers through bulk and container vessels, as well as the road transportation of Tharisa’s PGM output to smelters at Impala Platinum, a local platinum mine.

Sue Jean Taylor is a seasoned research writer with experience in undertaking research and research management. Her interest is now in science communication and investigative writing. For the last five years, Dr. Taylor was the program coordinator of AfroMont, a university-based networking organization supporting collaborative research in the African Mountains.   

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