By Simon Norton, International Zinc Association, Africa Desk
If South Africa is to have any hope of economic recovery post-Covid-19, no sector of the economy can afford to do things the way they did before. President Cyril Ramaphosa has said as much in several of his addresses to the nation and we are currently going through an economic and engineering dislocation in 2020.
That’s as true for heavy industry as it is for any other sector. And not going “back to the way things were” doesn’t just mean re-looking at supply chains. What’s required is a view which prioritises long-term gains over short-term profiteering and understands that focusing on quality and performance in the present will have future dividends.
If the construction industry and civil engineering sector are to embrace such an approach, then they cannot afford to skimp on corrosion protection. This is where hot dip galvanising using zinc or roof sheet made from zinc alloys is crucial.
Why galvanising is essential
Hot dip galvanising of steel structures and steel items such as concrete reinforcing steel is a cost-effective way to prevent premature corrosion of steel and to ensure a long life for steel in corrosive environments.
And South Africa is not short of those. The country has a coastline of over 2850 kilometres and an extensive, complex and vastly expensive infrastructure has developed along the coast over the past 100 years. Not to mention the vast steel infrastructure underground in the corrosive atmosphere of deep gold mines as well as coal and platinum mines, all of which need the corrosion protection provided by zinc galvanising.
Much of that coastline has highly corrosive conditions, meaning that any steel is highly vulnerable to corrosion. So any steel structures can quickly become corroded, unsafe, and may have to be replaced in the short-term after only two to three years of life.
While hot dip galvanising may cost more initially, it provides a long-term maintenance-free service life, saving significant sums of money normally spent on repainting or coating maintenance over the prescribed life of the project. Hot dip galvanised steel structures can give a trouble-free life of more than 30 years in the right environment.
Long-term economic benefits
In the long-term, this can only have benefits for any steel used in both the private and public sectors.
With public infrastructure lasting longer and requiring less maintenance, the State will be able to focus on new build programmes and other developmental issues, increasing the general welfare and wellbeing of all South Africans.
The private sector meanwhile can plough money saved on maintenance into expansion, potentially growing the employment pool. And with the economic destruction wrought by South Africa’s anti-Covid-19 lockdown potentially costing millions of jobs, anything that brings new jobs should be welcomed.
A local-first approach
Fortunately, South Africa is well positioned to take a local-first approach to galvanising. The country has several zinc mines, with the recently opened Vedanta Gamsberg Mine in the Northern Cape among the most notable, while in 2021 the new Orion zinc mine near Prieska will start operations.
There are a number of South African companies who specialise in hot dip galvanising for a variety of purposes, ranging from structural steel to fencing, while continuous sheet galvanisers focus on roof sheeting and cladding for construction. What is missing currently is a dedicated zinc refining facility within South Africa, however it appears that a zinc refinery will be constructed in Gauteng in the near future.
Building such a facility will only make it easier to buy local and save on foreign exchange as well as speed up time of delivery. Again, this benefits everyone. If South Africans buy more local goods, manufacturers will have more capacity to hire skilled workers. And, where those skills don’t exist, they will be incentivised to provide training, resulting in more people in higher-paying jobs. This adds value across the chain and doesn’t just include economic benefits, but will also go a long way to creating a more socially cohesive, united country.
A new, sustainable economy
While it may seem like a small thing, if South Africa is to deliver the new economy President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised, every potential piece of the puzzle has to be in place. And for the steel industry and civil engineering, that means not skimping on galvanising.