With renewed threats of sanctions against her in the form of an Arab oil embargo, South Africa is preparing for petrol rationing in the early New Year and has already taken other emergency measure.
With renewed threats of sanctions against her in the form of an Arab oil embargo, South Africa is preparing for petrol rationing in the early New Year and has already taken other emergency measure. Although the Republic is rich in almost every other mineral, it lacks its own natural oil supplies. However, the country has one valuable asset-a factory in Orange Frea State that produces oil and oil by-products in a revolutionary way - by converting coal into oil.
The SASOL plant, owned by the South African Coal, Oil and Gas Corporation was opened in 1950. Located in a specially-built town, Sasolburg, where the cars have "OIL" embossed on their number plates, the plant produces an estimated five per cent of South Africa's total oil requirements.
The present oil crisis has spurred the Coal, Oil and Gas Corporation into a 40-per-cent expansion of the existing plant, and there are rumours that a second plant may be constructed in the future.
The coal for the plant comes form a mine only a-mile-and-a-half (2.5 kms) away. The reserves in the SASOL-owned Sygma colliery should last for a hundred years.
To produce the oil, the coal has to pass through two stages of refinement. First the coals is converted into gas, through the action of high-pressure steam and oxygen. Coal also fuels the power station that applies the steam for the process. There are two process for "synthesising" the gas into oil; Together, the two processes yield the full range of crude oil products.
Despite product problems and limited success during the early years of the SASOL project, the corporation's Managing Director, Mr. D.P. de Villiers was able to boast last week "we have the only oil-from-coal plant in production in the world, as well as the biggest coal gasification plant."
On Wednesday (21 November) the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) called on the Arab oil producers to place an oil embargo on South Africa, Rhodesia, Portugal and Israel. Although the South African government has not commented on the move, official figures published last week show the effect such a ban would have. Fortunately for the Republic, her largest supplier of oil, Iran, has not joined the embargo, and still maintains friendly relations with South Africa. However, the Iranian supply counts for only one third of South Africa's imports, and the rest comes from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Gulf States.