Energy Resources

South Africa Table of Contents

Fortunately for South Africa, it is well endowed with coal and uranium for energy production, because the country apparently has no significant petroleum reserves and was officially cut off from oil imports from 1979 to 1993. Oil accounted for about 20 percent of primary energy until the early 1970s, and the government had stockpiled an estimated 18 million tons of imported oil by 1979. Although unreported oil shipments continued during the sanctions era, many industries switched to the use of coal to power generators.

Imported crude oil is processed at four refineries--two in Durban, one near Cape Town, and one in Sasolburg, southwest of Johannesburg--with a combined distillation capacity of about 401,000 barrels per day, or 21.5 million tons per year. In 1994 the government invited international investment in oil and gas exploration for the first time since the 1960s. Minister of Mines and Energy Roelof "Pik" Botha announced the plan, saying that the government needed domestic energy sources for reconstruction and development. The state-owned Southern Oil Exploration Corporation (Soekor) also needed the investment capital to develop nine recently discovered small oilfields off the western Cape coast, and several other small wells near Mossel Bay.

South Africa's coal reserves, most located in the Witwatersrand and in northern KwaZulu-Natal, were estimated to be between 60 billion and 100 billion tons, enough to maintain early-1990s levels of domestic use and exports through much of the twenty-first century, according to industry analysts. The coal occurs in seams, often less than one hundred meters below the surface, and hence it is relatively easy and inexpensive to mine. Most coal used locally is burned in generators at electricity plants; it is also used for coking in the steel industry.

During the 1980s, Eskom, the government's electric power utility, was the coal industry's major customer. Eskom purchased about two-thirds of coal output, which fluctuated between 159 million and 176 million tons from 1984 to 1989. In the early 1990s, the coal industry produced more than 180 million tons of coal each year, of which at least 47 million tons were exported. The industry employed more than 76,000 people. Eskom helped to finance coal mining operations and guaranteed coal prices to ensure the mining companies' return on investment.

International sanctions in the 1980s affected the coal industry in two ways. United States and European importers reduced their demand for South African coal exports, and South African homes and industries increased their use of coal in place of oil and other imported fuels. But in 1991 and 1992, as most sanctions were being lifted, the South African coal industry found itself facing stiff competition from emerging low-cost producers, such as Indonesia, Colombia, and Venezuela.

South Africa is ranked fifth in world uranium reserves in the 1990s with recoverable reserves estimated at nearly 180,000 tons. Uranium is produced as a by-product of gold in some mines of the Witwatersrand, and as a by-product of copper in the Phalaborwa mines of the far northeast of the country. Since 1968 all uranium produced in South Africa has been processed and marketed by the Nuclear Fuels Corporation of South Africa, a private company owned by the gold mines that produce uranium. Output declined in the late 1980s, as operating costs increased and uranium prices hit a thirteen-year low. Uranium output averaged nearly 2,000 tons a year in the early 1990s. Exports of uranium declined from roughly 1.3 percent of total export revenues in the 1980s to roughly 0.2 percent in the early 1990s.

South Africa produced substantial, but undisclosed, amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in its nuclear weapons program, until that program was dismantled in the early 1990s. In 1994 the government, although a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), maintained stockpiles of HEU to produce industrial and medical isotopes, or to downgrade for use in power reactors.

The government has sponsored extensive research and development in the production of synthetic fuels, and South Africa became a pioneer in extracting oil and gas from coal in the 1960s and the 1970s. The South African Coal, Oil, and Gas Corporation (SASOL) established three facilities between 1950 and 1982 and is considering building a fourth plant in the late 1990s. After 1979, when SASOL shares were offered to the public, most of the corporation was run as a private company, with government assistance in constructing new facilities. Officials did not release production figures to the public, but the SASOL plants were believed to be supplying about 40 percent of South Africa's liquid fuel needs in the early 1990s. The corporation received tariff protection when the price of oil dropped below US$23 per barrel and paid into a fuel equalization fund when prices exceeded US$28.70 per barrel. In addition to liquid fuels, the company produces chemicals, fertilizers, and explosives.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress