Hot on the heels of an announcement that it is closing its open-pit operations at Australia’s Ranger mine, Rio Tinto says it will sell its majority-stake in South Africa’s Palabora copper mining company to a South-African-Chinese consortium; along with this will go Anglo American’s minority share of nearly 17%. The operation was one of the backbones of the apartheid economy – and the largest single investment made by any foreign mining company during this period.
Palabora became not only South Africa’s most important copper producer, but also a significant supplier of other minerals, including vermiculite, magnetite, zirconium –and especially uranium. It’s never been confirmed that any uranium went to the regime’s  power and armaments industries, but significant sales of Palabora uranium were made to France during the 1980s. At the same time, Germany’s Nukem (in which Rio Tinto – as  RTZ Mineral Services – held 30%) contracted to supply uranium hexafluoride (UF6) directly to the apartheid nuclear programme, although the contract doesn’t appear to have been fulfilled .
Legacy issues – relating to workers’  health, safety and employment conditions, as well as environmental despoliation – remain at and around the Palabora complex. Rio Tinto still has a great deal to answer for.
For information about recent disputes between Rio Tinto and the local community, see