The history of platinum mining in the North-West Province begins with the name of Hans Merensky, a German educated geologist. In 1921 he discovered an 60 mile saucer shaped ore bearing reef, later to be named after him, that contained the largest reserves of platinum ever discovered. The Merensky reef ran through South Africa's bushveld region, spanning today's North West, Limpopo and Mpumalanga Provinces. It soon became evident that the best of these platinum bearing ores were in the Rustenburg region, much of it on land belonging to the baFokeng. This discovery initiated a scramble for mineral rights and dozens of companies were formed almost overnight, leading to shares being bought and sold at staggering prices.
Eventually Rustenburg Platinum Mines, which later amalgamated with Anglo-Rand Mining to form Union Platinum Mining, established itself as the dominant mining conglomerate. Impala Platinum was the flagship of Union Platinum. However, at this stage, platinum mining, because of the complexity of the extraction process and the huge capital outlay required, was not particularly profitable. In addition the demand for platinum remained low from the 1930 to the late 1950s. It was the sudden demand for platinum from the Indian jewelry trade and the need for platinum in catalytic converters in motorcars, that drove an increased demand for platinum in 2001. The three major companies responsible for this mining in South Africa were Anglo-Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin. (The British based Lonrho Mining).
The viability of platinum mining was placed at risk during the late 1980s up to the end of the millennium due to a prolonged legal battle between Impala Platinum and the baFokeng, who were trying to improve their share of the royalties from mining on the grounds that they were the legal owners of the land. (See Bafokeng) Complicating the picture was the government of Bophuthatswana, as most of the mines were now situated within the boundaries of this political construct of the apartheid state. Essentially, the head of Bophuthatswana, Lucas Mangope, backed Impala, realizing that he could divert royalties into the coffers of his state.
Unnecessary and vexatious litigation, coupled with political unrest then ensued, that deferred a merger between Impala and Lonrho. In 1999 the parties reached a settlement (Bophuthatswana had by now been swept away) that was beneficial to both parties. The baFokeng improved their royalties, whilst it paved the way for a successful merger between Impala and Lonrho. Impala's share prices rocketed from R43.50 in 1988, when the dispute began in earnest, to over R200 in April 1999,soon after it ended. The litigation also changed the rules in South Africa between the owner of mineral rights on the one hand and the mining institutions on the other that historically had been vastly skewed in favour of the latter.
Increased recent mechanization of the mines in the Rustenburg region has reduced the number of miners needed at the rock-face, which in turn has reduced the risk of potential fatalities and injuries. At the same time it has reduced the amount of jobs available, a development likely to be offset to some degree when new mining ventures in platinum come on stream. It is estimated that considerable reserves of platinum still exist, most of it in the North-West Province.