Zimbabwe platinum output steady despite crisis: JM

Metals refiner Johnson Matthey (JM) said on Monday that supplies from Zimbabwe and other producing countries rose by 5,000 ounces to 295,000 ounces last year, brushing aside the political woes that have led to disruption of gold mining.

For months, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai wrangled over a power-sharing deal after disputed elections, but their new unity government has imcreased optimism that could help repair a tattered economy.

"Zimbabwean platinum production increased despite a very difficult political and operating environment," JM said in its Platinum 2009 report.

In its 2008 Platinum report, JM had said political uncertainty in Zimbabwe, which has the second largest reserves of platinum after South Africa, could damage output.

Mining has become the leading source of foreign exchange for the southern African country, but political turmoil and unfavourable rules led to mines closing, especially in gold.

Miners have since 2002 struggled with foreign currency, energy and equipment shortages, forcing operations to shut down while skilled labour fled to other countries.

JM said Zimbabwe’s two platinum mines not only maintained production levels, they extended their expansion programmes, although the weaker platinum metal group prices led to the closure of the Zimplat’s open pit in November. 

Zimplats, owned by the world’s No. 2 platinum producer Impala Platinum (Implats), which has the biggest mining investments in Zimbabwe, replaced the lost ore by tapping into new underground sources.

Zimbabwe’s other mine is Mimosa, a jointly run operation by Implats and Aquarius.

Implats, which is expanding Zimplats at a cost of about $340 million, has vowed to pump more cash into the country but only if the political and economic situation improves.

Implats Chief Executive David Brown met Mugabe last month in Harare and invited him to the commissioning of its expanded mine later this year.

Anglo Platinum (Angloplat), the world’s top producer of the metal, is also expanding its potential in the country by developing the Unki platinum mine in central Zimbabwe, meant to produce 150,000 ounces a year when complete.

Implats, Angloplat and Rio Tinto, are some of the biggest mining firms with interests in Zimbabwe, and have weathered the storm unleashed by the country’s political crisis.

Mining officials in the country say platinum output could grow further, but a law limiting foreign ownership of mines to 49 percent is a huge barrier to mining investment in Zimbabwe, which also has hefty deposits of diamonds, coal and nickel.