After more than a century on the throne, South Africa has been deposed as the world's biggest producer of gold, with its estimated 2007 output, of 272 t, falling just short of the 276 t of the yellow metal produced by the new number one, China.
While Chinese gold production increased by an estimated 12% year-on-year, South African mines produced 8% less gold than in 2006, according to precious metals consultancy GFMS's 'Gold Survey 2007 - Update 2', which was launched in Toronto on Thursday.
South Africa had held the accolade of the biggest gold producer since 1905, but its ouput has been in steady decline since a peak of 1 000 t in 1970, GFMS chairperson Philip Klapwijk said.
GFMS partly attributed the sharper-than-expected decline in South African ouput to safety-related mine closures, and the one-day industry-wide strike, held by the country's biggest mining union in December, which had knocked almost a ton of output off the country's total yearly production.
According to GFMS estimates, global mine production contracted by about 1% in 2007, to 2 444 t.
Peru recorded the biggest decline, with gold production falling an estimated 17%, to 167 t, while Indonesia and Brazil were the top gainers, with output rising by an estimated 18% and 16% respectively.
At a company level, none of the top five producers increased their production, and AngloGold Ashanti was the only firm to record a steady output, while the other four, Barrick Gold, Newmont Mining, Gold Fields and Harmony Gold all fell short of their 2006 figures.
Interestingly, according to GFMS's figures, AngloGold Ashanti snuck past US-based Newmont Mining last year to become the second-biggest gold-miner by production.
Klapwijk said that shortages of skilled personnel and supply bottlenecks were a factor in the decline in world gold production.
New projects, mine expansions and even operating mines were being affected by these constraints.
Production cash costs rose significantly, by an average of 24%, in 2007, GFMS said.
However, margins had remained stable, at just below $300/oz, as soaring gold prices outpaced cost increases.
Costs were also pushed upwards by the growing levels of development being undertaken by producers, as they sought to capitalise on the price rally, Klapwijk said.