Fueling the South African economy

Fueling the South African economy

Of all South Africa’s mineral riches, the mining of coal has arguably been at the centre of the country’s economic and industrial development.


Coal was first mined on a commercial basis in South Africa in 1857 from the Molteno Coalfield. The country is currently the sixth largest producer of coal in the world and by far the largest producer in Africa. South Africa was the first country in the world to use electricity on a commercial basis. The diamond town of Kimberley had electric street lights way before London did. Eskom, the state-owned national electricity supply utility, generates over 90% of the country’s electricity. In addition to the use of coal in the domestic economy, about 28% of the local production is exported mainly through Richards Bay in northern KwaZulu-Natal, making South Africa the largest coal exporting country in the world. Nineteen coalfields have been identified in South Africa, and these coalfields have been defined on the basis of its sedimentation, origin, formation, distribution and quality of coals. These variations are in turn related to specific conditions of deposition and the local tectonic history of each area. The most important of these coalfields are the Witbank Coalfield and the Waterberg Coalfield.

Commercial exploration in the Witbank Coalfield goes back over 125 years and it is still one of the most important coalfields in South Africa, supplying more than 50% of the country’s saleable coal. Coal in the Witbank Coalfield is hosted in rocks of the Vryheid Formation (Ecca Group). The coal seams are mainly flat lying, gently undulating with a very gentle (1–3°) regional dip to the south. Five individual seams are recognised, each associated with various depositional sequences. Of these the number two, four and five seams are the most economically important.

The Waterberg Coalfield contains between 40% and 50% of South Africa’s remaining coal resources and is regarded as the last major coal deposit in the country. Geologically, the Waterberg Coalfield occurs in the fault-bounded Ellisras sub-basin, considered an embayment of the much larger Kalahari-basin that underlies a vast area of Botswana. This sub-basin is considered as a half-graben. Coal is hosted in two different levels of the Ecca Group. The lower coal seams — zones 1, 2, 3 and 4A — are predominantly dull coals used for power generation. The overlying Grootegeluk Formation is between 70m and 90m thick and hosts the thick interbedded coal deposit type coals. These coal deposits all require beneficiation and some yield float fractions that may have metallurgical properties.

Source: Episodes Journal of International Geoscience (Vol. 39 No. 2 June 2016). The Great Mineral Fields of Africa. Guest editor: MGC Wilson. Project director: RP Viljoen.
Special issue for the 35th IGC, Cape Town, South Africa – 27 August to 4 September 2016.

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