At the end of last year’s Mining Indaba in Cape Town, I wrote that there was no longer any middle ground for South Africa’s mining sector; that, there seemed to be, in the speeches and conversations that took place over those few days, an increasing intolerance for lip service - especially after the events at Marikana in 2012. But, that if the sector was to get itself back into a position where investors, both domestic and foreign, were willing to jump back in wallet first, government, labour and companies needed to act decisively.
This view of a growing determination to change things was built not only on the presentations seen during the event but also on actions like the planned restructuring at Anglo American Platinum that was announced in the January of that year to significant opposition.
12 months on, much has happened. Amplats’ restructuring looks decidedly different; a mining peace pact, driven by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and signed by everyone but the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union committed industry, labour and government to doing specific things to improve the sector; the once dominant National Union of Mineworkers has signed wage agreements in both platinum and gold and yet, the platinum and gold mines remain in a precarious position.
And as the first delegates begin to land in Cape Town for the annual event that attempts to bring investors from around the world and African-focused mining companies together, instead of talking about the potential opportunities for investment, many will be discussing the 70,000 strong, AMCU-led strike on the platinum majors; the court battle between the union and the gold miners for the right to strike in a bid to achieve even higher wage increases than those secured by NUM and, increasingly, the growing media reports of divisions within the new union.
Of course, underlying many of these discussions will also be an interest in the upcoming national elections within the country and the implications for the mining sector of all the various political permutations that could occur – and, particularly, whether or not the dreaded spectre that is nationalisation will be resurrected.
This focus on labour and political issues is of particular concern because, it is likely to cast a pall on some of the nascent optimism that has been seen in markets like the UK and Canada over the last few months as hopes flicker that the mining sector – particularly the junior market – is beginning to pick up once more.
Hopefully, this year’s event is going to be more optimistic than people expect, in the same way that the events in Vancouver have been, as South Africa is not the only jurisdiction juggling political hot potatoes, but the events of the last few weeks make that optimism and the investment flows that come with it a little less likely.
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