Image by Maikol Aquino from Pixabay
By John Young

A regional overview of Mpumalanga Province, South Africa

Mpumalanga is at the centre of power generation in South Africa, through its coal-fired power stations. Despite concerns about fossil fuels and their effect on the environment, coal is going to be around for the foreseeable future. The provincial government is looking beyond coal towards a renewable energy future, especially where projects can be tackled by small businesses. There might be opportunities in micro-hydro or rooftop solar projects that will help to reduce dependence on the national grid while simultaneously promoting SMMEs.

As it happens, a number of coal mines are receiving new investments and Sasol has just launched the third of its replacement mines.

A major concern for provincial planners is to diversify the economy and to grow the manufacturing sector. The Mpumalanga Economic Growth and Development Path (MEGDP) identifies beneficiation, agri-processing and the development of value chains as priorities.

Steel and associated manufacturing remains one of the province’s strong suits, but a number of initiatives are being pursued to promote beneficiation and other forms of manufacture through a clustering approach and through tax incentives in Special Economic Zones.

A R250-million Youth Development Fund is to be launched in Mpumalanga, aimed at township and rural businesses run by young people. The Provincial Government of Mpumalanga is looking to cooperate closely with some of the large companies in the province who actively support SMMEs through enterprise and supplier development programmes. The Premier has identified possible partners such as the Exxaro Enterprise Development Fund, the Anglo Zimele Development Fund (Youth Development Hub and the Youth Development Initiative), the Sasol Enterprise Development Fund, South32, Glencore and the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA).

Tourism is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of the Mpumalanga economy. International tourist arrivals rose from 1.5-million in 2017 to 1.6-million in 2018. The Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) has stepped up its marketing efforts with the result that domestic tourist arrivals also rose from 2.2-million in 2017 to 2.9-million in 2018. All of these tourists spent R13.1-billion, thus contributing significantly to the provincial economy.

The Kruger National Park remains the province’s most visited asset but the decision by UNESCO to afford World Heritage Site status to the Makhonjwa Mountains near Barberton will boost geological tourism to the province and supports the efforts of the province to diversify its offering. Major projects to improve tourist experiences are underway at the Graskop Gorge (where a transparent lift takes tourists into the depths of the gorge), a skywalk is to be built at God’s Window and a cable car is planned for Three Rondavels.

The international body’s decision has also had the effect of expanding the curriculum at the relatively new University of Mpumalanga. On the basis of the UNESCO ruling, UMP is offering geology as part of a BSc degree, to supplement existing courses in education, agriculture and hospitality.

Several infrastructure investment projects in the tourism sector have been put forward by the Mpumalanga Economic Growth Agency (MEGA). To promote the province, the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency regularly participates in IMEX events in Frankfurt and Las Vegas, Africa’s Travel Indaba and WTM Africa.

Heritage and cultural tourism are in the spotlight because Mpumalanga is already a leader in nature reserves and parks. There is a special focus on BRICS countries, and provincial authorities are investigating a tourism airlift route between Moscow and Mpumalanga. The TRILAND partnership with Eswatini and Mozambique is another avenue, as is the collaboration with KwaZulu-Natal, Eswatini, Mozambique and the Seychelles. The latter project is called east3ROUTE Tourism Initiative and proclaims “Experience, Adventure, Scenery and Trade” between the participating provinces and countries.

The spectacular Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga Province. (Picture source: MEGA)

Mpumalanga has rich and varied mineral resources and fertile soil that supports diverse farming operations.

The province hosts large companies in the manufacturing sector, with internationally renowned firms such as Sasol (synthetic fuels and chemicals) and Xstrata (ferrochrome) having large operations in the province. Columbus Stainless in Middelburg is a major producer of stainless steel, while Middelburg Ferrochrome, Thos Begbie and the Nelspruit-based Manganese Metal Company are among other important heavy industrial companies.

The province’s rich agricultural produce is used by companies such as McCain, Nestlé and PepsiCo and there are also pulp and paper plants (Sappi and Mondi), fertiliser facilities and textile manufacturing concerns. The decision by Sappi to start producing dissolving wood pulp at its Ngodwana Mill has significantly increased the manufacturing capacity of the province. York Timbers is a leading forestry company and the sugar mills and refinery of RCL Foods (formerly TSB Sugar) are large contributors to the provincial economy.

Sasol, the integrated oil, gas and chemicals company, runs several plants at Secunda. Products manufactured at the complex include synthetic fuel, petroleum, paraffin, jet fuel, creosote, bitumen, diesel and lubricants. The primary feedstock for synthetic-fuel production is coal, and the plant is in the heart of Mpumalanga’s coalfields.

More than 80% of South Africa’s coal is sourced in Mpumalanga, with the town of Emalahleni (Witbank) being the centre of the industry. Other minerals found in the province include gold, platinum group minerals, chromite, zinc, cobalt, copper, iron and manganese.

The southern half of the eastern limb of the platinum-rich Bushveld Igneous Complex runs south towards the towns of Lydenburg and Machdoadorp. Deposits of chromite, magnetite and vanadium in this area are the basis of the ferro-alloy complex in Witbank-Middelburg and Lydenburg. Nkomati Mine is South Africa’s only pure nickel operation.

Investments

The biggest companies in Mpumalanga’s most significant sectors have been investing heavily in infrastructure and operations. Global energy and chemicals company Sasol regularly spends tens of millions on upgrades and improvements at its Secunda complex. The Sasol Synfuels refinery is the only commercial coal-to-liquid fuel plant in the world and constitutes a key component in South Africa’s oil and gas sector.

Sasol Mining is also very active in the province: three of its projects are valued at more than R8-billion and the third and final mine in its replacement mine project was launched in 2019. Exxaro Resources is investing R3.8-billion in a new mine at Belfast.

Another global giant, Sappi, has invested heavily in the conversion of its massive Ngodwana Mill (pictured), and other companies in the paper and forestry field such as Mondi and York Timbers make large contributions to the province’s economic growth.

The restarting of the Evraz Highveld steel mill in 2017 was particularly good news, after the company went into business rescue two years before. ArcelorMittal South Africa continued supplying feedstock to the mill and in 2019 took up its option to purchase the mill. The rest of the mill complex property, the rebranded Highveld Business Park, is now a thriving mix of engineering concerns, manufacturers, distributors and commercial enterprises trading in an established area with excellent infrastructure and logistics links.

Geography

The Drakensberg escarpment sharply divides the western grasslands at high altitude (Highveld) and the subtropical component to the east, the Lowveld. The central region of the province is mountainous, with dramatic landscapes presenting exciting vistas for visitors. The Lebombo Mountains rise in the east.

The southern and northern Highveld regions produce large quantities of field crops such as barley, soybeans, maize, grain and sorghum. Potatoes also flourish in this area.

Most of the province receives summer rainfall, often via thunderstorms. Frost is common on the Highveld but is almost absent in the subtropical regions where fruit, nuts and citrus thrive. Differences in temperature and rainfall between the Highveld and Lowveld can be considerable. One of the fastest growing agricultural sectors is macadamia nuts. These are cultivated in the Lowveld and are exported in ever-growing volumes. The Nelspruit district in the Lowveld is South Africa’s second biggest producer of citrus fruit, while vegetables of all sorts do well in this area too.

Large parts of the province are in the so-called Middleveld comprising high-plateau grasslands. Forestry operations are found in central and south-eastern Mpumalanga, but the heart of this important industry is around Sabie in the east. The Mpumalanga forestry sector is one of the most important in the country: 11% of the total land area of Mpumalanga is covered either by plantations or natural forests. Large sugar operations are found in the south-east of the province.

The province has excellent roads and railway connections and is well served by airports, airstrips and heliports. The Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport and Hoedspruit Airport are the province’s two main airports.

The Maputo Development Corridor is a transportation corridor comprising road, rail, border posts, port and terminal facilities, running from Pretoria in Gauteng through Mpumalanga to the Port of Maputo in Mozambique. The corridor supports high volumes of cross-border freight services and aims to boost trade within and beyond the region. Industry and tourism benefit from the concentration of resources and ease of transportation. This international initiative emphasises Mpumalanga’s excellent location as a logistics and transport hub.

Read more about the business and investment environment of Mpumalanga Province in the 2019/20 edition of Mpumalanga Business: