The Southern African Coal Processing Society (SACPS), an organisation committed to ensuring the evolution and advancement of coal processing technologies through education, is preparing to celebrate its 50 year anniversary. In honour of this phenomenal achievement, LAURA CORNISH presents an account of the very first years it was started, the major milestones achieved and some of the special memories worth noting thanks to some of the ‘memoirs’ of founding member Professor DAVID HORSFALL. After speaking with some of the society’s honorary members, this article celebrates this economy-driving industry and the decades-long contributions made by this world-class society and its members.

Horsfall’s recollections

In the early 1970s, three mining groups had specialist coal preparation engineers in their head offices. Trans-Natal was the first to import an overseas coal preparation engineer in the form of Stan Lynch, who had held the prestigious position of divisional coal preparation engineer in the Northumberland and Cumberland division of the National Coal Board. He served Trans-Natal for many years and perhaps introduced new standards and concepts from which they possibly still benefit.

Lynch was accompanied by his successor, Dr John de Kock from the University of Cape Town, Rand Mines specialist Morris Milner and myself (working at Anglo American at the time).

The three of us got to know each other and often lamented the absence of a professional body to serve the coal preparation profession. The mining industry’s view of coal preparation was low, with most mine managers regarding the washing plant as an impediment to production.

My two colleagues knew that a professional society – the Coal Preparation Society – had been formed in the UK and that there may have even been a similar body in Australia. Whilst the SAIMM was there and possibly waiting to help, our relatively small coal interest would soon have been absorbed and lost. So we decided to form our own society.

Rand Mines was still in the Corner House and the basement had a small delightful conference centre or mini-theatre in it. Morris arranged for us to borrow it for an afternoon and a notice was prepared and sent to all who might be interested in the formation of a society.

Here the records become a little murky. That notice suggests the meeting was in early or mid 1968. Whether the meeting was in mid ‘67 or mid ‘68, the response was gratifying. Possibly as many as 100 people attended and at the end the meeting resolved that such a society should be established.

Volunteers were sought from the body of the meeting to act as a committee to hammer out objectives, constitution, fees, and so on. The initial informal meeting of what was called the interim committee took place at my home on 28 August 1968, those present being the same as those listed below as attending the inaugural committee meeting on 8 October 1968. However, as the members present at the inaugural meeting in October ratified the 28 August decision to form a society, this was (or should be) taken as the formation date of the SACPS.

Losing a great coal leader

David Horsfall sadly passed away in 1995 at the age of 64, within just a few weeks of being diagnosed with liver cancer. Not only did he organise his own farewell lunch, he also entertained his audience with a Gilbert & Sullivan (his favourite) karaoke rendition at his final address.

He will always be remembered at Anglo American for his pioneering work in double stage washing at Landau colliery, which opened the way for the Japanese LAC contract, the establishment of a viable export market and the construction of the    Richards Bay Coal Terminal. Around 1976 he was promoted to the position of consulting metallurgist, a position he held until his resignation from the company.

Another major milestone was in designing the New Vaal coal processing plant to fine tune the calorific value of the feed to the Lethabo power station.

Horsfall’s love of teaching resulted in his accepting the Shell Chair of Coal Studies at Wits University in April 1988.

“Interestingly, the subjects of the talks held in this period bear a remarkable resemblance to those discussed today,” says independent coal consultant Peter Hand, who joined the SACPS in 1982. The third meeting took place at the Fuel Research Institute (FRI), where we ended up with a committee of eight who were also elected officers of the SACPS:
• Chairman: DW Horsfall (Coal division, Anglo American)
• Hon Secretary: Simon Streicher (FRI)
• Hon Treasurer: Morris Milner (Rand Mines )
• Other Members: John de Kock (General Mining); C J Hazard (AAC Coal Division); P J F Fourie (FRI); W Gardiner (FRI); B T Seale (probably AAC Coal); and Stan Lynch who was voted onto the committee in his absence.

We agreed that the meeting should be known as the inaugural meeting and those present (including Stan) were regarded as founding members.

Since its formation in 1968 the SACPS has remained vigorously independent, produced a handbook (now on its sixth edition) that has sold well on a worldwide basis, produced training courses from plant operator level to National Higher Diploma level, organised local and internationally attended conferences and has a regular programme of technical meetings for its members.

At the inaugural meeting, a list of possible topics was made which included: magnetite; training; plant performance standards; sampling; pollution; screening; autogenous cyclones; exchange of processing information; abrasiveness; briquetting; costs; price/quality relationship; automation; interpretation of analytical data; staffing of plants; tendering; and developments in coal preparation.

The (first) AGM, held as a “Sausage & Splash Barbecue”, took place at my home on 12 December 1969.

May 1970 must be regarded as the most significant event in the history of the South African coal industry. A five-man team – of which I had the honour to be a member – went to Japan to negotiate, via Mitsui, the Heads of Agreement of a contract with the steel mills for the supply of “low ash coal” (LAC) over a ten year period. Eight mines were originally involved. The contract tonnage, 23 Mt, enabled government to build the Port of Richards Bay. A one-year pause was allowed by the Japanese for test work to be carried out to ensure that the specified quality could be met.

When the final contract was signed in 1971, only four mines remained as suppliers – Greenside, Koomfontein, Landau, and Van Dyk’s Drift. Landau actually started exports of LAC via Lourenço Marques in 1972; the others followed when Richards Bay opened. The port facility enabled South African coal exports to rise from 1 to 2 Mtpa (via LM and Durban) to 60 Mtpa in 1995 (this has grown substantially since then). The whole contract depended upon beneficiation, so needless to say the SACPS held a “low ash coal” symposium later in the year.

The first official dinner was held in 1975 at the Hof van Holland Restaurant in Pretoria. “As far as I can make out the attendees were Fick Fourie, David Horsfall, Peter Armstrong, Mike Harris, Morris Milner, Johan Engelbrecht and Robin Lazar. With partners, the attendance was 12 and the three tables supplied were pushed together during the course of the evening,” Hand says.

1976, the year the Richards Bay Coal Terminal opened, saw us dipping a toe into international waters. The International Committee for Coal Research (ICCR) decided to hold a meeting in South Africa at the FRI which rapidly turned into a mini conference (about 20 delegates from the US and another 10 from other countries).

The SACPS organised a whole day’s presentation of papers covering all aspects of coal usage in South Africa. We rather went to town on the social event expected by delegates, hiring the home and services of Des and Dawn Lindberg to have a sheep braai with musical entertainment.

In discussing the entertainment with Des I said something ethnic might be appreciated, so he suggested giving a recently formed duo “Johnny and Sipho” a chance. Johnny was a lecturer at Wits, Sipho a gardener and they had put together a short song and dance routine. They were a great success and Johnny Clegg went on to form Savuka and have an international career. So the SACPS fostered talent in many ways.

1977 was probably the year that the SACPS started formal operator training. A team of lecturers drawn from society members lectured to some 25 or so at the Chamber of Mines (CofM) training centres, using the three volume book of notes prepared specially for the course. The first volumes were typed copies litho printed by the Chamber with hard covers made and put on by the Anglo printers. The society designed and had made certificates jointly in the names of the CofM and the SACPS.

The course had been written in English but most of the operators attending were Afrikaans. Most lecturers were bilingual and could cope but the demand for an Afrikaans version grew.

In association with the Institute of Energy, the society organised a dinner and technical meeting at the Chamber of Mines Sports Club in 1981. The dinner was to celebrate the visit of Dr ‘Joe’ Gibson, Board Member for Science on the National Coal Board. Joe was always a staunch supporter of South Africa when such attitudes were highly unpopular. He spoke extensively about coal liquefaction.

The AGM for year 1981 took place in May 1982 at the Sunnyside Park Hotel where I gave an account of the network of underground canals serving the Duke of Bridgewater’s coal mines in the 18th century.

In 1984 the society tie appeared; designed by Fick Fourie (who passed away earlier in 2017), it was available in grey and maroon.

1985 was momentous for the society in that the International Conference on Coal Research held its seventh conference in Johannesburg/Pretoria, from 14 to 18 October.

The event was largely organised by the NICR who were the official representatives in the ICCR Organising Committee. It was held at the CSIR Conference Centre but the SACPS was invited to have a member on the organising committee for the conference.

The DMEA (Department of Minerals and Energy Affairs) largely funded the event except for one small item: gifts for the delegates, and we were asked to fund those. The request was taken back to the SACPS committee. It was accepted and, after much debate, specially made cufflinks were thought appropriate for the occasion.

They were made by a well known local jeweller, Tessa Fleischer, who produced silver cufflinks with a square panel. It was inset with a 9-carat gold circle, the whole being in effect the SACPS logo although it bore the initials “ICCR”.

A special pair, studded with industrial diamonds, was made for President Botha. A final banquet was held at the Sandton Sun that year where the organising committee thought a 2 t block of coal, festooned with the national flags of the members of the ICCR, would look rather impressive outside the banqueting hall and the SACPS provided one. The arrival was memorable with said block on a hand propelled carrier lumbering along the corridor.

There was another interesting incident involving President Botha.He was informed that a gift awaited him, and as the representative of the SACPS I was designated to present it to him. He came to the 2 t chunk of coal, the meaning and use of which was explained to him by Alan Cooke, deputy chairman of Rand Coal. The symbolism of the cufflinks was unfolded and the Staatspresident informed that he was now a sort of ambulant coal washing unit. The diamonds were described – one a black piece of board representing coal (as we thought real coal would dirty his shirts and Mrs Botha might disapprove). She was present, swathed in pink and with a pink feather boa, and nodded agreement.

The other cufflink bore an industrial diamond that might pass for a gemstone in the dusk with the light behind it. The President was then told that as he was in possession of uncut diamonds he was liable to be arrested at any moment. He responded that there were no policemen to be seen, so why worry? The rejoinder was that they were present and being his secret police, didn’t intend to be seen. However, De Beers saved the day by getting for him a certificate enabling him to have two uncut diamonds in his possession.

In 1987 advanced coal preparation training (following on from previous training courses introduced) commenced with a syllabus, and course content was prepared by the SACPS. The exam led to a National Certificate in Coal Preparation awarded by the Department of Higher Education for those who enrolled and had a Matric Certificate.

1989 was the year of the society’s 21st birthday and appropriate celebrations took place. A special tie was created, with the design committee putting in the sort of effort required for a major coal preparation plant. Special wine glasses were made for the annual dinner.

In 1993 the International Organising Committee of the International Coal Preparation Congress voted to include South Africa as a full member. Their chosen vehicle for such representation was the SACPS and I was their chosen representative. This really placed the SACPS as a member of the top body in our discipline. The IOC now included members from the UK, USA, Canada, Mainland China, the former Soviet Union, Australia, France, Germany, Poland, Brazil – and South Africa.

The World Coal Institute wished to have a ‘Coal Day’ in 1996 and approached the DMEA, who in turn asked the SACPS to take the lead. The SACPS accepted the role.

The course for the National Diploma in Fuel Technology was finalised through Technikon RSA. Matriculated participants taking the Advanced Coal Prep Course through the CofM College in Witbank would be eligible for the National Diploma in Coal Prep provided they also registered with Technikon RSA.

The voices of other key SACPS role players

Fast forward 12 years and we see the SACPS celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2008. This was another great milestone achievement for the society says, Hand, adding that training and education to this day remains an important facet and focus. “In 1977 the first basic coal prep course was presented and in 1987 the first advanced coal prep course.”

Impressively, the conference and dinners have continued to grow. Dinner numbers have gone up from 14 in 1975 to 580 in 2008 and at their peak nearly topped 1 000 people. “Taking on Smartalk, run by Verity Ross, was a vital contributor to this growth.”

David Peatfield, a long-term member of the SACPS and now a retired coal processing consultant, says his fondest memory, “without a doubt, is the friendship I had with David Horsfall – as well as his sense of humour and his driving force behind the development of the society.” Having attended his first dinner in 1982, Peatfield is proud to have been a part of the society’s growth and how it has come to include contractors and suppliers on the committee, “as opposed to just mining houses and educational institutions only.”

He also notes the improvements in technologies over the decades, which include developments in pump feeding of HM cyclones and large diameter cyclones, as well as developments in fines treatment with the advent of spirals, teeter bed separators and the less popular dense medium fines treatment.

“Ultimately, the greatest value of the SACPS is education, without a doubt hosting of the ICPC, the on-going update of the SACPS book and the annual best student awards.”

Johan Engelbrecht, currently a director at Scanmin, also joined the SACPS in its early days and highlights how pleased he is with the growth and success of the biennial conference, “which has now become a favourite international event with approximately 250 delegates and with international speakers. This improved the financial position of the SACPS substantially and enabled the society to make real contributions to their objectives,” he states.

A one-on-one interview with honorary SACPS member David Michael, who joined the society in 1973 after a long term career in the industry which included being the MD of three Rand Coal operations, recalls some of the momentous technological evolutions in the coal processing sector. “Maximising yields and product dewatering post 1985 were quite significant focus areas, as was partial washing/de-stoning and blending stockpiles to prevent combustion,” he highlights. He also notes how processing experts needed to evolve their skills to understand the full value chain of the coal sector – “which importantly included the marketing element of the business.”

Unionisation of the coal sector was another major change which took place as far back as the late 1970s, Michael remembers. “One of the greatest defects in our industry all those years back was the lack of job opportunities for women.”

Evolution of the coal sector

In the past, almost all the coal mines were owned and operated by just a handful of large coal companies. This has changed significantly since 1994 – the sector now comprises a large number of small (and also some large) black economic empowered (BEE) coal mining companies, says the CSIR’s Johan de Korte. “Before the early 1970s, South Africa’s coal mines were mainly focused on supplying the local market with a range of sized coal products. Marketing of the coal at the time was managed by the Transvaal Coal Owners Association (TCOA). Limited amounts of coal were exported through Durban.”

Coal man/men of the year
Professor Quentin Campbell 2017
David Power, David Massey 2016
Mark Cresswell 2015
Kevin McMillan 2014
Peter Lidgate 2013
Jakes Jacobs 2012
Jim Harrison 2011
Lionel & Professor Rosemary Falcon 2010
David Peatfield 2009
Mark Craddock 2008
Pat Fogarty 2007
Johann Beukes 2006
Trevor England 2005
Brian Dowding 2004
Otto Martin, Johan de Korte 2003
Dave Michael 2002
Manfred Freissler 2001
Alan Johns 2000
Adriaan van den Berg 1999
Johan Engelbrecht 1998
Professor JP Franzides 1997
Alf Claassen 1996
Fick Fourie 1995
Koornfontein Colliery 1994
Professor David Horsfall 1993
Peter Holz 1992
Dr Peter van der Walt 1990
Peter Armstrong 1989
Johan Reeders 1988
Mike Harris 1987
Stan Lynch 1986

“The agreement between South Africa and Japan for the supply of low ash coal (LAC) initiated our export market and the establishment of the Richards Bay export harbour as well as a dedicated coal rail line to Richards Bay. It also saw the construction of a number of large LAC plants. The LAC contract with Japan has now expired and there are no mines producing LAC anymore but the export of coal, mostly thermal coal, through Richards Bay has remained.”

De Korte says that over the years, the quality of South Africa’s thermal coal has changed and the current trend is for lower grades of coal to be exported. This is a reflection of the nature of the remaining coal reserves in the Mpumalanga coal field as well as the international coal market.

“Eskom power stations used to be supplied by captive collieries in the past. Coal was mined, crushed and sent directly to the power station via conveyor belts. Today very few power stations are supplied in this way. Most of the stations are now supplied with coal from a number of different mines, to a large extent by trucking the coal by road from the mines to the power stations.”

And in the past, most of the coal mined was by underground bord-and-pillar mining. Today however a large portion of the coal is mined using open cast methods; and old pillars left by previous mining are also being re-mined by opencast methods at a number of mines, De Korte points out.

“Over the last 40 years, coal processing has also seen a number of changes and new trends. Jigs were phased out and replaced with dense medium separation. Spirals were introduced to process fine coal. Large diameter dense medium cyclones became available and in a number of plants replaced the previous combination of dense medium drums and small diameter cyclones. In recent years, much effort has been placed on reducing the amount of water used in processing – this includes the installation of filter presses to close water circuits and also the introduction of dry processing methods to the South African coal industry. Many coal mines are now also washing coal for use by Eskom and some of the old discard dumps, dating from the days when LAC was produced, are being re-washed to scavenge coal for Eskom use.”

The future – for the SACPS and the coal industry

Current SACPS chairman Jayson Jacobs says the SACPS’s main objective remains to enhance education throughout the coal processing fraternity – by doing this it provides opportunities to the youth to benefit from the society through education. The society board/committee also offers young generations the opportunity to connect with our experts in informal and formal forums – “this was something that I personally benefited from as a young coal processing engineer coming through the ranks.”

“Youth is the key to this industry’s long term future and fostering new generations will always be our priority. It is refreshing and encouraging to see the recent interest from youth in participating in the SACPS events, and to share their modern, dynamic, more often than not healthy appetite for new, more technologies. As an industry we need these engagements in order to be sustainable.”

“The South African coal industry is blessed to have so many experts as well as talented youth, who by working together will make a hugely positive impact on our industry. This will ensure a long-term future and prosperity for all.”

This will likely deliver positive impacts for the Waterberg, De Korte adds. “While mining of coal in the Waterberg started in the late 1970s with the establishment of Grootegeluk, it is anticipated that mining in this region will increase as the number of mines in Mpumalanga starts to decline.”