Pan African Mine Tailings – Sustainable Mine Management

It was a sad day when Johannesburg’s “Top Star Drive-in” closed in 2008. Top Star was a landmark, where many local citizens had enjoyed movies and fantastic views over the city. The reason for closure was more to do with competition from cable TV than the fact that Top Star was located on top of an old gold mine tailings facility, the Ferreira dump. Today, such a location would be inconceivable.

In the last decade, tailings dam collapses across the world have become more frequent and severe. This is mainly because tailings dams are getting larger as more low-grade deposits are being exploited, according to

For example, in 2015 the Samarco iron ore mine’s tailings dam in Brazil burst, killing 19 people. An even more serious incident occurred four years later, with the failure of the Brumadinho tailings dam at the Corrego do Feijao mine, also in Brazil, where almost 300 people died. In 2022, in South Africa, the Jagersfontein tailings dam on a diamond mine in the Free State collapsed, killing two people.

Apart from the loss of life and damage to property, these disasters released huge amounts of toxic sludge into the surrounding environment. In response, the UN Environment Programme, Principles for Responsible Investment and the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM, in 2020 launched the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management.

According to, globally mining companies discard an estimated 180 million tons of hazardous mine waste each year. There’s an estimated 18,000 tailings dams around the world, of which 3,500 are active.

What are tailings?

Tailings are mine waste, which can be stored underground or on surface. The integrity of storage facilities, and their potential for damage, depends on their design, where they were built, the occurrence of extreme weather events, and the nature of the material stored.

For example, the waste from underground gold mining that occurred in South Africa after 1890 includes silica sand, heavy metals, toxic chemicals and in some areas, uranium – as well as a small fraction of residual gold. Dust blowing off these sites as well as water run-off was damaging the air quality and the city’s water resources, and the health effects were intensified by the intrusion of people building houses or playing (even sand-surfing) on their perimeters.

The good news is that with modern processing techniques and bulk mining, the residual gold in tailings storage facilities (TSFs) can be extracted at low cost. Reclamation simultaneously makes a profit for the operators and cleans up the environment (although even when levelled, those sites will never be suitable for residential housing).

South Africa’s gold TSFs are being re-mined by several companies, both large and small. Some companies are simultaneously mining underground, and some are specialists in mine waste management.

The older gold TSFs can yield 0.1-2.5 grams/ton of gold. Grades like this could not support a deep-level mine, but they are viable for modern open-pit mines and tailings retreatment operations. For example, Pan African Resources, which owns the long-established Barberton Mines complex in Mpumalanga, moved into tailings treatment about six years ago, and it fits into the company’s commitment to sustainable mining. The Barberton Mines Tailings Retreatment Project (BTRP) has a head grade of 1.6-2.2 grams/ton, with recoveries at around 27-43%. For comparison, the three underground mines in the Barberton complex – Fairview, Consort and Sheba – have head grades of 5-14 g/t, and their processing recoveries are above 90%.

Pan African has another tailings retreatment operations, Elikhulu at the Evander Mine, and recently concluded an agreement to buy a number of TSFs from Mintails, which is in business rescue (a process similar to Chapter 11 reorganisation in the US).

The Mintails project

Today all of central Johannesburg’s old gold dumps have already been levelled, but there are still significant amounts of gold tailings on the western and eastern fringes. 

The Mintails dumps around Krugersdorp on the far western edge of Johannesburg have been a running sore for nearby residents for decades. The area is an environmental wasteland: a collection of rusting old buildings and stained puddles, overrun by illegal miners and a haven for criminals. Because of the financial troubles of the previous owners, no funding was set aside for environmental rehabilitation, which deterred many other potential buyers. 

Reprocessing the Mintails TSFs will enable Pan African to demonstrate its philosophy of “going beyond compliance”.

Pan African estimates there are about 120 million tons of re-mineable material in the TSFs it has bought from Mintails, with a head grade of about 0.3g/t, representing about 1.1 million ounces of gold. It will use hydro mining – blasting the material with high-pressure hoses and piping the slurry to a modern automated treatment plant – which is a proven low-cost, low-impact simple mining method.

“These tailings represent a massive unutilised asset for both Pan African and the local community,” CEO Cobus Loots says. “Re-mining them will add about 25%, or 50,000oz/year, to Pan African’s production over 13 years, while contributing to the environmental rehabilitation of the site. Our activities will also create socio-economic opportunities for local communities and suppliers, including job creation, skills and supplier development, to lift up the standard of living in Krugersdorp.”

Pan African has finalised the necessary R2.5 billion ($129 million) of funding to acquire and mine the tailings, at favourable rates. It intends to begin construction of the processing plant, subject to permitting, by June, with steady state production scheduled for December 2024. Post-commissioning, Mintails’ payback period will be about three and a half years, based on prevailing rand gold prices.

A solar PV plant could also be constructed on the site to provide steady power supply and to reduce the company’s carbon footprint. Pan African recently completed a 9.9MW solar plant at Evander, which will be expanded in the near future, and is planning to build a second solar PV plant at Barberton.


Mining doesn’t have to leave a bad legacy. Pan African’s substantial investment in the Mintails assets and renewable energy plants in South Africa will sustain its future in South Africa for many years, while bringing benefits such as job creation, skills and a cleaner environment to the people living around its operations.

September 6th, 2023ESG, ICP Focused

About the Author: Charlotte Mathews

Charlotte Mathews is a financial journalist with over 30 years of experience on daily, weekly and monthly publications. From 2001 to 2018 she worked for two of the Arena Holdings’ publications, Business Day and Financial Mail, writing about South Africa’s mining and energy sectors. She has also written on personal finance for Independent Newspapers and Moneyweb and worked for a news agency in London. She is now a freelance writer and editor working from home. She holds a BA from Wits University and a postgraduate diploma in Journalism from Rhodes University.