For well over a century and a half coal has played a vital role in South Africa's economy and currently bituminous
coal is the primary energy source for domestic electricity generation, as well as being the feedstock for the
production of a substantial percentage of the country's liquid fuels. It furthermore provides a considerable source
of foreign revenue from exports.
Based on geographic considerations, and variations in the sedimentation, origin, formation, distribution and
quality of the coals, 19 coalfields are generally recognised in South Africa. This paper provides an updated review
of their exploration and exploitation histories, general geology, coal seam nomenclature and coal qualities. Within
the various coalfields autocyclic variability is the norm rather than the exception, whereas allocyclic variability
is much less so, and allows for the correlation of genetically related sequences. During the mid-Jurassic break up
of Gondwana most of the coal-bearing successions were intruded by dolerite. These intrusions are important as
they may cause devolatilisation and burning of the coal, create structural disturbances and related seam correlation
problems, and difficulties in mining operations.
Whilst many of the coalfields have been extensively explored and exploited, those in the north of the country
have until recently received much less attention. Four coalfields occur partly or wholly within the Limpopo
Province of South Africa and these may contain as much as 70% of South Africa's remaining coal resources.
These coalfields in particular have been the focus of recent exploration due to the presence of large coking and
thermal coal resources, as well as for their coal bed methane potential, and these resources need to be unlocked
with regards to creating maximum benefit and minimal environmental degradation.
South Africa's coals have also been recently addressed as palaeoclimate archives recording Gondwana's postglacial
climate amelioration by major changes in land plant communities, and proving high-resolution palynostratigraphy
as a crucial tool to decipher climate change during the Permo-Carboniferous. This aspect of the
coals of South Africa is also reviewed.