The ANC, Australia and the Super miners

June 11, 2010

 

Some may wonder why South Africa missed the boat, so to speak, during the last resource boon. Why did most resource rich countries, notably some of our African peers and in particular Australia, outperform South Africa by miles?

The answer lies in the policies of the ruling party, and not having learned a thing, the brilliant Fred Gona, chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources, having flipped the Chamber of Mines the proverbial bird by not reading their objections to the course being plotted, are dead set on engineering a “compromise” that will satisfy Julius Malema’s nationalisation dreams and the Anti-Malema faction with the establishment of a state owned super mining company to be managed in the same effective manner as ESKOM, SABC, Denel, Transnet and SAA; a company which will, with the assistance of the taxpayer, distribute great riches to the deployed and their patrons. Like Malema, the well informed Gona assures us that, despite popular belief and countless reports to the contrary, South Africa remain the most mineral rich country in the world.

Ever wondered why foreign investors are not falling over their feet to invest in this untold mineral wealth? To add substance to the learned Mr. Gona’s claims we just have to look at the Pamodzi/Aurora great gold venture. For those who have not followed the saga; a year or so ago, Pamodzi Gold Mining Company – a company scavenging off the remains of mostly worked out gold mines, effectively abandoned by the bigger players reluctant to invest in these carcasses because of prohibitive regulations, restrictive labour practices and other risks – ran out of cash. Having assured investors of a major foreign investor, who subsequently miraculously disappeared, they; Pamodzi, went into liquidation with the only benefactors the BEE partners and their patrons – the directors.

The liquidators soon announced that Aurora, a company high on big names – Zuma, Mandela and Hulley better known for mining dirt in Presidential trials – but light on management savvy; with the backing of a filthy rich Malaysian, will take over Pamodzi. For good measure they will ad Primrose Mining who owns mines that were mined to extinction a century ago, to their magnificent portfolio. The Malaysian disappeared into the remote forests of Borneo it seems; the mines produced nothing but polluted water which was pumped, untreated, into the surrounding streams; the workers were not paid and apparently starved of the property but these small challenges did not deter the great new age miners. They soon found a new backer but somehow the tight fisted greedy bastard became dodgy and, much to the delight of many – including the great number of ANC parliamentarians who lauded and cheered Malema’s nationalization submission to Parliament – the liquidators announced that a Chinese Consortium are preparing an offer to take over this poisoned chalice.

Given the hullabaloo over the super mining tax proposed by the Australian Government, with the giants of the Mining world BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata threatening to take their toys and go play elsewhere, many must be wondering why the global miners are so relaxed about the intention of the ANC and the future of their investments in South Africa, especially in view of Gona’s tales of the untold mineral riches lying below our soil. Truth is; they’ve are here; they’ve experienced mining in South Africa and they don’t like. The big players do not trust the direction of the industry, they dislike the uncompetitve labour set-up and anarchic unions demanding pay way beyond their skill level; they do not take kindly to the implied and the real threats to their tenure. Knowing Africa however, they remain condescending. Their attitude; keep quiet, patronize them whilst sweating the assets, discount the in the balance sheet, they build for the distant future, twenty-thirty years hence, when, like with Zambia and the DRC, they can walk right back in, this time invited, and, in the ashes of a decimated industry find a few embers to nurture and build into new industry on their terms.

The rosy picture of our mineral wealth, pictured by some, is belied by the behaviour of BHP Billiton, a company with its roots in South Africa and being steered by a South African. They have sold much of their interests in South Africa; amongst others a thriving Chrome and Ferrochrome business and diamond interests, simultaneously allowing licences and options in other minerals and oil to lapse. The BHP Billiton exit strategy is simple, milk ESKOM for what they can, sweat their coal and manganese assets and avoid green fields projects investment.

The BHP Billiton model is closely followed by others. Rio Tinto, chaired by a South African, has not made a significant investment in South Africa for ages, preferring to invest in Zimbabwean Diamonds and Namibian Uranium whilst flogging a large part of their stake in Palabora Mining Company, a dying and marginal asset, to BEE entities. Barrick, the world’s biggest gold miner only maintains a token presence in South Africa whilst expanding their operations in Tanzania. Norilsk recently got rid of all the technical expertise housed in their Johannesburg office, deciding to maintain a small administrative staff to keep an eye on their joint-ventures with the likes of ARM, whose chairman Patrice Motsepe, is not against nationalization as long as he gets enough for his, not insubstantial, chunk of worthless Harmony shares. Meanwhile Xstrata, another miner being steered along by a South African, having dipped their toes into Platinum mining with their Angloplats joint venture and a small investment in their own Elands Platinum Mine are not prepared to convert their 25% investment in major platinum player Lonmin into full ownership and are seemingly reluctant and circumspect with any new Ferro Alloy and coal investments, probably considering the risk as excessive.  

It is ironic that the mighty De Beers – on the bones of their backside because of some worthless South African assets and the loss of their marketing stranglehold – consider sending their explorers trudging, like Frank Zappa’s Nanook and the evil seal hunters, across the Canadian Tundra, to dig through the perma-frost and the deadly yellow snow (where the Huskies go) so that they can mine the rich diamond veins lying underneath freezing lakes, less risky than investing in South Africa. Anglo Ashanti would rather invest in the war torn DRC than in South African gold projects whilst Randgold Resources would, according to their great African Leader – Mark Bristow, rather face the logistical nightmare of building mines in godforsaken parts of Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal, DRC amongst other, than face the insecurity of super miners like Gona and his political backers Malema and others. As if all of that is not convincing; the mighty Goldfields, unable to make much from “the biggest known gold-resource” in the world – South Deep, are now celebrating the success of their exploration teams discovering new deposits in Peru and whilst the production from South Africa are shrinking with the dawn of every new day; their investments in places like Ghana, Peru and Australia – in some instances they have to build their own power generation plants – are showing excellent returns in the wake of a high gold price.

To think that study tours to Venezuela will bring answers is rather foolish and a thinly veiled reason for another overseas trip. Perhaps the wannabee miners like Gona, Malema, Kulubuse Zuma and Kodwa Mandela, their friend Hulley and others like them should visit 3762countries that are struggling to rise from the ashes of socialist agendas and learn how to stay out of the quagmire. Perhaps Jacob Zuma should’ve dragged his friends from COSATU of to India to see how they the Indians work and find out why they can be competitive.

In Australia, when Kevin Rudd announced his populist “mining super tax”, his ratings initially shot up. However, the Aussies being relatively educated, and having assessed the effect of this tax on the goose laying the golden eggs, are now giving Rudd the thumbs down and his ratings are dropping. In South Africa, if a politician conjures a populist hair-brained scheme, any opposition to that plan will result in thinly disguised threats and punitive measures by deployed cadres, making life impossible for such opponent whilst hardening the resolve of government to destroy. Makes one wonder; what did those convicts that built Australia have?