South Africa missing the point…and the cage

March 4, 2011

As South African mines minister Susan Shabangu launches a North American roadshow, the Toronto-based Fraser Institute is releasing its 2010-2011 global mining survey, which ranks South Africa 67, of 79 jurisdictions across the world.

Over the past five years, South Africa has fallen precipitously from 37 in the rankings and in many subsets of the survey South ranks very close to countries like Zimbabawe.

 “South Africa remains a good investment destination”, says the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), disagreeing with 494actual mining investors polled in the survey. The DMR will nevertheless be taking this message on an international road show slated for early March in Canada and United States”.

I wonder which part of the report the ANC, Shabangu and the Department fail to understand. Maybe they just do not understand the business they are trying to regulate and govern.

It costs R 2 billion to start a medium sized mine and it takes 10 years or longer before that investment shows any returns and then the returns are limited to 20 years; a risky business indeed. Wiil you put 50% of your pension money into such a venture? Will you put a cent of your retirement money into such a venture if you were to retire in ten years time?

If South Africa is going to create 8 or 9 mines a year, required to create 140000 jobs in Zuma’s plan, in the next ten years, we are going to need these investors. The industry cannot be sustained or create jobs by taking the mineral rights of operating mines like Sishen and handing it to someone else in South Africa without any fixed  investment taking place.

Examining the results of the Fraser survey it is clear investors are steering clear of the South African mining industry for a number of very valid reasons. The uncertainty caused by the regulatory environment mitigates against the high risk posed by South African mining. The high cost of labour, restrictions on the employment of skills because of affirmative action, the general shortage of critical skills and the cost of strikes erodes returns and creates a business environment where high risk and low return is the norm. Add to that the possibility that your “property” are threatened with nationalisation, appropriation by connected individuals and with Mugabe style invasions a distinct possibility, the apathy of investors are understandable; in fact as a shareholder I would praise their caution.

The truth of the matter is that the biggest mining companies in the world avoid investment in the South African mining industry, not because they are ill informed, on the contrary, it is companies like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Anglo American and Goldfield, most of them with strong South African ties and roots, who are reducing their exposure to South Africa.   

What is significant is that the mighty BHP Billiton ignored South Africa in their $50 billion expansion plan. It is significant that DeBeers are selling their South African properties and are investing millions of dollars in the Snap Lake Mine, a hell hole, in the icy Northern territories of Canada. It is significant that Goldfields prefer to invest in a mine in Finland, a place where people are notoriously expensive, rather than in a relatively easy, cheap and simple Uranium operation in South Africa. It is significant when Xstrata prefers to invest in an Iron ore mine in Mauritania rather than acquiring South Africa’s Lonmin, the third biggest platinum producer in the world.

 It is even more significant when, despite calls for increased mineral beneficiation, the leading producer of ferrochrome in the world, halts the expansion of ferrochrome capacity and reverts to ore exports to China. It is a tragedy when the biggest BEE mining company in South Africa whose connections with the top office of the country are legendary, prefers to export chrome ore rather than expand their benificiation capacity because, whilst the returns from ore exports are smaller it ameliorates the risk of the investment in smelters.

Shabangu and her cronies think the investors are stupid. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to see the folly of investing in South Africa.

It is interesting to note that Zimbabwe have the potential to create a second Rustenburg; they can produce as much platinum as are produced in the Rustenburg area yet it remained largely untouched for two for the same reasons why people are avoiding South Africa. This situation will be exacerbated every another, more restrictive labour law is passed, or another property hijacked, or another call for nationalisation is made, even when Mugabe calls for the attachment of foreign mines because we, in the eyes of the investors are now not much different to Mugabe.

If the Zuma government is to turn the tide they will have to start dancing to a different tune; Umshini Wham is just not cutting the ice.

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