Despite its parent Basil Read Ltd being in business rescue, Basil Read Mining is trading profitably and has a very healthy order book with contracts running not just in South Africa but also Lesotho, Namibia and Botswana. This point was emphasised to Modern Mining’s Arthur Tassell when he recently spoke with Basil Read Mining’s MD, Nathan Williams. According to Williams, the company is eager to spread its footprint beyond the Southern African region to other parts of Africa, West Africa in particular.

Basil Read Mining keen to extend its African footprint

Basil Read Mining machines working at a diamond mining contract in Botswana.

Basil Read Mining (BRM) provides the full range of surface contract mining services including drilling and blasting, loading and hauling, in-pit water management, rehabilitation, and mine scheduling and planning. The company operates in both hard and soft rock and is also active in the quarrying industry through its subsidiary Blasting & Excavating (B&E), which works at 29 quarries in South Africa. Between them, BRM and B&E (which constitute the bulk of the mining division of Basil Read Ltd) have approximately 1 800 employees and operate a fleet of plant and equipment with a replacement value of over R2 billion.

“We’re a good business which is currently running very well,” says Williams. “Some prospective customers and suppliers note that Basil Read Ltd is in business rescue and assume that the problems it has experienced also extend to BRM. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 2017, the mining division had a revenue of R1,8 billion and generated a profit of R76 million. We’ve actually performed extremely well in what is a very difficult market for all open-pit mining contractors.”

Basil Read Ltd, one of the iconic names of South Africa’s construction industry with a history dating back to the early 1950s, has been in business rescue since June last year. Like many of its peers in the construction sector, it has suffered lean times in recent years and in its 2017 financial year (to 31 December 2017) recorded a loss of R1 billion on revenues totalling R4,5 billion. Throughout the difficult times, however, the mining division has always traded profitably, proving to be one of the mainstays of the Basil Read Group. There has been speculation that Basil Read Ltd might seek a buyer for BRM but Williams says the business is not up for sale.

Currently, BRM’s biggest contract by volume is at the Skorpion zinc mine of Vedanta Zinc International (VZI) in the far south of Namibia, where the company is moving just over a million bank cubic metres (BCMs) a month working on the final cut of the open-pit operation. “We’ve been on site since May 2017 and the contract has generally gone well,” says Williams. “It’s our first contract for Vedanta, which is one of the bigger mining groups operating in Southern Africa, with operations not only in Namibia but also in Zambia and in the Northern Cape at Black Mountain and Gamsberg.”

BRM has a second contract in Namibia – this is at the Tschudi open-pit copper mine in the north of the country near Tsumeb. It was appointed by the mine’s owner, Weatherly International, to undertake the open-pit mining in 2014 and has been on site ever since.

“This is a somewhat smaller contract than Skorpion, with now only about half the volumes, but it has been running for a long time providing us with a steady baseload of work in Namibia,” notes Williams. “It’s also been challenging at times with water inflow into the pit having proved a complication last year. We worked closely with the client to bring the problem under control and the contract is currently going very well.” He adds that BRM and B&E have had a long history in Namibia, having worked at both the Rössing and Trekkopje uranium mines, starting in 2007.

In neighbouring Botswana, BRM has a long track record and over the years it has worked at all of Debswana’s diamond mines (Jwaneng, Orapa, Daamtsha and Letlhakane) and also for the Mupane gold mine, the Tati nickel mine, the Boseto copper mine and the Lerala diamond mine. Probably its single biggest contract in the country was the massive Cut 8 project at Jwaneng, in which it was in a joint venture – known as the Majwe Mining JV – with a long-standing Botswanan partner, Bothakga Burrow, and international mining contractor Thiess Mining Services (previously Leighton).

BRM has recently exited the JV. “We had a 28 % interest in Majwe, which has now been sold to Thiess Botswana and Bothakga Burrow Botswana in a deal worth BWP85 million,” says Williams. “We remain engaged with Jwaneng, having been awarded a two-year drilling contract at the mine recently. We are very committed to Botswana and will be watching developments in the country’s mining industry very carefully, particularly in the developing Kalahari Copperbelt and the coalfields, with a view to securing further contracts.”

In South Africa BRM’s only major mining contract is at the Venetia diamond mine of De Beers in Limpopo Province. “We’ve worked at Venetia since 2008, doing the full scope of drilling, rehabilitation and, since 2012, loading and hauling as well,” says Williams. “The mine, of course, is going underground so open-pit operations will eventually cease but we would hope to be on site for at least another three years.”

Another notable contract for BRM in South Africa, though now finished, was at Assmang’s Beeshoek iron ore and manganese mine in the Northern Cape. The contract started in 2012 and extended over three years.

BRM’s fourth big active contract is at the new Liqhobong diamond mine of Firestone Diamonds in the highlands of Lesotho, where it moved on to site early in 2018. “This is a nine-year contract and potentially the amount of material to be moved on a monthly basis could exceed a million tonnes,” says Williams. “Our team on site has to contend with rugged terrain and extreme weather conditions, including snow, but we thrive on challenges of this type.”

Discussing the equipment that BRM uses, Williams says the company has a mixed fleet, comprising Komatsu and Caterpillar when it comes to rigid trucks, Liebherr and Komatsu in the case of large excavators, Hyundai and Volvo for small excavators and Bell and Volvo for ADTs plus other support fleet. “Our biggest trucks are 100-ton capacity Komatsu HD785s and Cat 777s while our biggest excavators are Liebherr R9350s, which are in the 300-tonne class,” he says. He adds that the fleet is extremely well maintained and notes that one of BRM’s subsidiaries, acquired in 2014, is Hytronix, which focuses on assembly, repairs to, and rebuilds of, heavy earthmoving equipment.

On future prospects for BRM, Williams says that the company is bidding for contracts in the coal sector. “We have been in coal in the past and would like to re-enter this market to reduce our current reliance on hard-rock mining. It would also allow us to fully utilise the smaller equipment we have within BRM and B&E, which is ideally suited to coal mining.”

Williams also believes that BRM can benefit from geographical diversification. “We’ve traditionally been a Southern African player but it’s becoming increasingly clear – and this was a message that was reinforced for me at the recent Mining Indaba in Cape Town – that there are opportunities across Africa, particularly in West Africa where the gold mining industry has shown meteoric growth in countries such as Ghana, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso,” he states.

“We’ve already put in several bids in which we came up against some of the established mining contractors operating in West Africa. We were shortlisted for one contract so we know we are competitive.”

Williams, who has been at the helm of BRM for less than a year, is no stranger to the mining industry. Born and raised on the Cape Flats, he graduated from UCT with a BSc (Eng) in Chemical Engineering in 1994. His first position was with Anglo American’s Goedehoop colliery where he was a Senior Plant Metallurgist. He subsequently enjoyed a long career with Anglo, working at several of its operations (including the Cleveland potash mine in the UK) with his longest service being at Black Mountain Mining (BMM) at Aggeneys in the Northern Cape.

When BMM was acquired by Vedanta in 2011, he was appointed GM and held this position through to 2014, after which he spent just over a year at Vedanta in India as Associate VP: Mining & Commercial. After this appointment, he left Vedanta, serving first as MD of Aveng subsidiary Duraset and then as GM for Minova Africa. He joined BRM as MD and Executive Director in May last year.

“It’s good to be back in pure mining after a break of several years,” he says. “Surface mining contracting is a highly competitive business but it’s also an exciting industry. Certainly, I’m looking forward to further cementing and growing Basil Read Mining’s reputation as one of South Africa’s top surface mining contractors and also to taking its operations beyond the Southern African region.”

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