This was emphasised when Gold Fields’ Driefontein, once dubbed the richest gold mine in the world, recently celebrated the pouring of its 100 millionth ounce of gold. No other gold mining operation has achieved this feat.

The closest challengers to Driefontein, which began operation 52 years ago, would be Kloof gold mine, another in the Gold Fields stable. Kloof, which began operating 37 years ago has produced some 70 million ounces of gold over its life. The biggest single producer in the AngloGold Ashanti stable is Tau Tona with production of 35 million ounces over its life dating back to the 1960s. This is followed by the Great Noligwa mine which has over its 26.5 million ounces. However, a fairer comparison may be comparing the output of the three former Western Deep Levels operations (now Tau Tona, Savuka and Mponeng) which since 1962 have produced over 59 million ounces of gold.

“The West Wits area is an incredibly well endowed geological province,” Gold Fields CEO Ian Cockerill says.

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Gold pour at Driefontein.

And Driefontein, located 65 km west of Johannesburg, is not a sunset operation.

Driefontein, which has produced 3,000 tonnes of gold, still has reserves of 23 million ounces and its orebody is open at depth. The mine is also a record breaker in other aspects. It is the world’s deepest gold mine. Its average working depth is 2.5 km below the surface, but the deepest of its seven operating shafts, No 5 shaft, reaches a depth of 3,548 metres. The shaft is so famous in South Africa that its headgear adorned the country’s former R5 note.

The Driefontein mine consists of East Driefontein and West Driefontein, and employs 16,800 people. It has three metallurgical operations, which have a total milling capacity of some 580,000 tonnes a month of ore. This includes a central elution facility established in 2002.

The grade of ore from underground at Driefontein is about 8.3 g/t, but the grade going through the plant at the moment is about 5.5 g/t due to the input of surface residue material. The mine is winding down this surface tonnage, while increasing its tonnages from underground. By June 2006 it will have built up its underground tonnages to a peak of 430,000 tonnes a month.

Driefontein’s history reflects the turbulent history of South Africa’s gold mining sector. Driefontein mines the famous Ventersdorp Contact Reef and the Carbon Leader, the richest formation ever found in South Africa. After its discovery, West Driefontein was floated in 1945 and began producing seven years later.

It suffered a disaster in 1962 when a large sinkhole opened under a seven story processing plant house, killing 29 people. The mine was almost lost later in the 1968, when a sudden inrush of water at No 4 shaft sent 228 million litres of water a day into the mine. It overwhelmed the pumps, and the flow was only stopped after two giant plugs and special drainage pipes were installed. Today Driefontein pumps 65 million litres of water a day from underground.

The 1968 flooding event slowed the development of East Driefontein, which only began production in 1972. By 1980 East Driefontein was among the lowest cost producers in the world. Both East and West Driefontein continued to report their results separately until 1999 when East and West merged. Driefontein is still a cost competitive producer, and its operating cash cost is R64,500 per kg of gold produced (US$314/oz).

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Minister of Minerals and Energy
Lindiwe Hendricks and Gold Fields
CEO Ian Cockerill inspect a gold
bar poured at Driefontein.

The mine, once described at the eighth wonder of the world has also been at the centre of more than one power struggle. Gold Fields recently fended off Harmony’s hostile takeover bid, a bid largely driven by Harmony’s desire to own assets such as Driefontein. In the past Driefontein has been coveted by Anglo American, which wanted to control the whole West Wits gold field. Anglo American has done well in this gold field, but in spite of its desire, never managed to get its hands on Driefontein.

The mine will continue to produce at over one million ounces of gold a year for about the next 20 years. Management hopes that it can further increase its reserves beyond that and extend Driefontein’s life even further into the new century.

Cockerill says that the term ‘world class’ is often bandied about, too often he feels, frequently by juniors touting their discoveries. If Driefontein is indeed used as the benchmark, then he is correct and there are very very few world class ore bodies out there.MRA