South African clashes tarnish volatile platinum industry

The death of 34 miners earlier this week in a clash with police has focused world attention on South Africa's troubled mining industry and its dominant position in the production of platinum.
South Africa mines an estimated 72 per cent of the world's platinum group metals. Next in line is Russia at 13.5 per cent, Canada at 5 per cent, Zimbabwe at 4.9 per cent, and the U.S. at 1.9 per cent. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)

The death of 34 South African miners on Thursday during a clash between protesters and police has drawn worldwide attention to the state of the mining industry in South Africa.

The protests occurred at the troubled Lonmin mine known as Marikana, the world's third-largest platinum producing facility, located in the northwest region of South Africa.

About 3,000 miners walked off the job earlier this month, seeking sharp pay increases that would more than double their current monthly wages, which are low by Western standards.

A similar pay revolt a year ago led to the company sacking almost 9,000 workers, according to reports.

This latest incident has rattled global markets worldwide and sent the price of this precious metal sharply higher because South Africa is the world's largest platinum producer.

When many people think of platinum, they think jewelry. But the precious metal is found in everything from car exhaust systems and pacemakers, to lipstick and shampoo. 

South Africa contains 203.3 million troy ounces or 6,323 tonnes of proven and probable reserves of platinum, according to a 1999 estimate generated by the platinum industry.

Compared to other countries, South Africa mines an estimated 72 per cent of the world's platinum group metals, which include the element platinum and five other precious minerals that are often found together in clusters.

Next in line would be Russia at 13.5 per cent, Canada at 5 per cent, Zimbabwe at 4.9 per cent, and the U.S. at 1.9 per cent.

Prices of platinum have fluctuated over the last five years because of a number of factors, including the 2008 global recession, the 2011 Japanese tsunami, which cut demand from Japanese electronics manufacturers, and the recent labour unrest in South Africa.

Before the 2008 recession hit, the price of platinum was selling at above $2,000 US per troy ounce and then sharply fell to about $900 per troy ounce.

It had climbed back to a peak of $1,900 US per troy ounce in August 2011, but dropped again and in mid-August 2012 was trading in the $1,460 range.

Platinum in high demand

A popular metal for jewellry and wedding rings, platinum has many other uses as well.

Since platinum has a high melting point, it is widely used in laboratories around the world for electrodes and dishes in which materials can be heated to high temperatures. The metal can withstand temperatures between 183 to 630 C. 

Platinum is an important component of a number of medical devices, including pacemakers. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Platinum is also used in medicine for creating surgical pins and in dentistry as an alloy ingredient for artificial teeth or crowns.

Platinum is even used in medication to treat a wide range of cancers and it was first used to create Cisplatin in 1977, a drug that has been used to fight testicular cancer.

Platinum can be found in pacemakers to help people who suffer from irregular heartbeats. This is because the metal is a strong electrical conductor and has few side effects when introduced to the body.

Platinum is also a huge component for the making of durable and heat resistant silicones. This has wide use in furniture polishes and cleaning products, aero and automotive engine seals and gaskets, construction sealants and high voltage cable covers.

It's also used in lipsticks and shampoos, when silicone is used as an ingredient.

Platinum is also a component of catalytic converters in the exhaust line of vehicles. Catalytic converters are often mandated by governments to help reduce the levels of carbon monoxide and other poisonous gases that vehicles emit.