SA unloved at its own mining party

2012-02-10 00:00

THE industry executives who pile into Cape Town every year for the annual African mining conference love the sun, wine and stunning mountain backdrop the venue provides.

But South Africa’s once towering mining industry is no draw and investors flocking to the indaba have their sights set on alluring prizes elsewhere on the continent and remain wary of sinking money into an industry that appears in a state of terminal decline.

Soaring labour and power costs which are not matched by productivity gains, not to mention the world’s deepest shafts for those mining gold, are all making South Africa a treacherous place for miners who are finding fewer headaches elsewhere.

Political risk and policy uncertainty have also dampened the enthusiasm of an industry that must invest millions and even billions to build mines before it can recoup any profit.

“You look at any of the major mining companies and they are very happy to spend billions of dollars to develop mines and related infrastructure in countries like Mongolia, Indonesia and Guinea, and are willing to spend billions of dollars on acquisitions, and a multiyear investment programme in Mozambique,” said Adam Brett, a London-based investment banker with J. P. Morgan, who focuses on mining.

“And just next door is South Africa. There are resources in South Africa, there are opportunities but frankly it is perceived to be easier to go to Asia, South America or indeed other parts of Africa,” he said.

Investors were reassured on one front this week by the government’s hammer blow to a nationalisation drive by radical elements within the ruling party.

A study expected to become official ANC policy said nationalisation would be an “unmitigated disaster”. But it also proposed a “resource rent” that would effectively be a super tax of 50% on earnings.

“It is fairly clear nationalisation is not a way forward, and clearing that out of the system is a very good thing but it has raised various other areas of uncertainty ... and any policy uncertainty for a business investor is not a good thing,” said Ian Farmer, chief executive of Lonmin, the world’s third largest primary platinum producer.

Platinum miners have little choice outside South Africa because that is where the stuff is found but others have far more choice.

At one of the lavish dinners put on for delegates, a senior mining executive said he feared South Africa was following the statist path taken by other African countries after they gained their independence from colonial rule.

But he praised other African mining states like Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast for opening their doors to mining investment.

Still, there are concerns in frontier Africa as a wave of resource nationalism surges across the region.

Nick Holland, chief executive of South African-based Gold Fields, the world’s fourth biggest bullion producer, said that “resource nationalism is my number-one concern at the moment”.

Holland said in December that looming tax changes in Ghana have put a question mark over $1 billion in Gold Fields’s planned investments in the country and that his company remained in talks with the government about the issue.

South Africa does remain a mining gateway to the rest of Africa, for both investment and manpower, with the continent drawing on the country’s executives and engineers to get projects off the ground and running.

Where there is a mine in Africa you are bound to hear Afrikaans.

The chief executives driving the looming $90 billion tie-up between commodities giant Glencore and miner Xstrata, Ivan Glasenberg and Mick Davis, are both South African born.

— Reuters.


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