Ferrous and Nonferrous Metals

South Africa Table of Contents

South Africa has the world's largest known deposits of chromium, manganese, and vanadium, as well as significant deposits of iron ore, antimony, copper, nickel, lead, titanium, fluorspar, zinc, and zirconium. Most of these metals are exported unprocessed, with the exception of iron ore, which is also used in the local steel industry.

South Africa's chromium deposits contain about 72 percent of the world's reserves, most of it in the Bushveld complex of minerals. In 1993 its mines produced 2.8 million tons of chromium, or about 32 percent of world output--down from 4 million tons in 1989; production recovered, to roughly 3.6 million tons in 1994. Used primarily to produce stainless steel, chromium was one of South Africa's export successes in the 1980s; prices reached US$0.70 per pound but dropped sharply when producers tried to undercut each other in 1990. The government used various incentives, including export subsidies and power rebates to those who produced alloys for export, to encourage production. About one-third of chromium produced in 1993 was exported, much of it to the United States and Japan.

South Africa contains the largest known deposits of manganese ore in the world. Its reserves of at least 12.5 billion tons, mostly in the Northern Cape mineral complex, constitute 75 percent of the world total. Manganese is essential in the manufacture of iron and steel, and more than 90 percent of South Africa's manganese is used for this purpose. During the late 1980s, production fluctuated slightly, but it remained between 3 and 4 million tons per year, while prices generally rose, nearly doubling in 1989. By the end of 1991, however, South African producers were forced to reduce prices in response to a weak international market. In 1994 more than 2.8 million tons of manganese ore were produced, roughly 17 percent of world output.

South Africa produced between 25,000 tons and 30,000 tons of vanadium a year in the early 1990s, almost 45 percent of the world's supply. Its estimated 5.4 million tons constitute one-third of world reserves. The world's largest producer is a South African firm, Highveld Steel and Vanadium. The year 1989 set a record in terms of both production and exports for South Africa, but when world steel production declined, demand for vanadium dropped and prices plummeted, forcing one vanadium producer in South Africa to close down. Prices again surged in early 1995, and Highveld Steel and Vanadium expected earnings to more than double in 1995, compared with 1994. Vanadium is used in manufacturing steel, to provide tensile and torsional strength and resistance to abrasion.

South Africa is the largest producer of iron ore on the continent, with reserves estimated at more than 9.4 billion tons. Iron is mined in the Northern Cape, the Bushveld, and the Transvaal complexes, and in KwaZulu-Natal. More than 29.3 million tons of iron ore, roughly 3 percent of world output, were produced in 1993. Almost half of that amount was used in the steel industry. A record 19.6 million tons were exported in 1994, much of it to Japan.

Although small by world standards, South Africa's steel manufacturing industry is the largest on the continent. Steel production increased dramatically in the 1970s following the development of port facilities at Saldanha Bay and the associated rail line connecting it to the high-grade Sishen ore deposits in the Northern Cape. Projections for the use of steel in local construction were increasing as the government began to implement its Reconstruction and Development Programme in 1994. Government plans to implement stricter automobile emission standards promised another boost to the steel manufacturers, who produce stainless steel for use in catalytic converters.

South Africa has only about 2 percent of the world's known copper reserves, with the largest deposits in the Transvaal complex in the northeast. Copper is also mined in the Northern Cape and the Western Cape. Mining costs are high, because of the high concentration of other minerals in copper ore. At the country's largest copper mine, at Phalaborwa, production decreased in early 1993, in part because of flooding that brought work in the mine to a standstill. Later that year, the mine owners received government permission to institute a seven-day workweek, and the mine increased its work force to extend operations. Nationwide copper production, nonetheless, fell from more than 176,000 tons in 1992 to about 165,000 tons in 1994, and copper exports decreased steadily, to roughly 82,000 tons in 1994.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress