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.


The Zuma economic nightmare

February 21, 2011

I have often written, going back a few years, that major global resource companies – scared of the usual suspects, the ANC created regulatory environment, labour blackmail, rhetoric, the total absence of security of tenure, blatant theft of mineral rights and the consequent unacceptably low margins and returns and general insecurity – slowly divesting from South Africa. With few major long term projects able to deliver suitable and sustainable returns to justify the risks to these extremely long term investments it would be rather stupid to expect investments and sooner or later South Africa will, for the sake of jobs and development, will have to beg these people to return un terms worse than ever before, conversely they can invite a different entity, China or India, who will most certainly not invest on terms more attractive than that acceptable to current investors.  

For my views I was often ridiculed and laughed at but these days, more and more “reputable” and “valued” analysts and commentators advocate the same views in conferences and publications that I have espoused for a while now. Despite this there are still many who refuse to believe.

It is interesting to note that BHP Billiton, the second biggest company by market capitalisation in the world, lagging behind only Exxon Mobile, are sitting on a pile of cash they do not know what to do with. The South African CEO of BHP Billiton, Marius Klopper, a “boertjie” not intimidated by the “Kill the Boer” song, announced that this gigantic company who dictates terms even to the likes of the mighty China, will embark on a five year, USD 80 billion plan, to expand the resource behemoth. To put this into perspective; $ 80 billion are more than the market capitalisation of Anglo American, the fourth biggest resource company in the world. The sad but not unexpected part of the story is that not a penny of the $80 billion, are destined for South Africa where the ANC government promised 140 000 new jobs in the mining sector (an equivalent of ten mines a year at a cost of $ 1 billion each) over the next eight years.

Unfortunately BHP Billiton is not the only resource company taking a dim view on investments in South Africa. World no 2, Rio Tinto, and numberone gold miner, Barrick are avoiding the country like the plague. And whereas Goldfields previously stated that they were reviewing their exposure to their South African assets, their CEO, Nick Holland has now made it very clear that Goldfields will focus on stabilising (accountant speak for sweating the assets or running the asset into the grouns) their gold output from South Africa by milking their main asset, South Deep, a mechanised operation which will not absorb the jobs lost as a result of winding down their other operations, Kloof, Driefontein and Beatrix. Holland also announced that the envisaged Uranium mine, based on the retreatment of uranium bearing gold mine tailings, will not go ahead. Instead Goldfields, having slipped from being the world’s second or third biggest gold producer less than two decades ago, to number six or seven currently, will develop prospects in Mali, Peru, Philippines and of all places, Finland. Astonishingly Goldfields have found it is cheaper to mine gold in a very developed and expensive, over exploited, Scandinavian country than in South Africa with its vast amounts of known resources.

The strategy of Goldfields to stabilise sweat their existing assets to the maximum extends further. It is an open secret for those with the necessary insight that Anglo American is following a similar strategy. They have in past years, flogged their most valuable assets, locked up in Anglo Platinum, to partners in joint ventures and, in doing so, substantially reduced their risk and exposure to the pernickety politicians belonging to the broad church. In their established operations they have minimised their capital expenditure to the barest minimum. They, Anglo, avoided the capital expenditure that would’ve been required to establish the Stylsdrift Mine and when they could no longer avoid or delay spending and in so doing they reduced their risk by passing the property on to Royal Bafokeng Holdings. The existing operations of Anglo Platinum requires a major Vertical Shaft system in their Rustenburg operations – virtually a new mine at a cost upwards of a billion dollars US – to maintain output. Anglo Platinum instead deferred this capital expenditure, choosing to access the cheaper ore requiring very little capital outlay at their opencast mine near Potgieterust; this in a market that is currently undersupplied; a clear indication that any growth plans requiring large fixed investment will be avoided or deferred until such time as sufficient security returns and risk is reduced to acceptable levels.

Despite this, the ANC continues to promise thousands jobs in mining with the disingenuous Ibrahim Patel telling the ill-informed and the great unwashed, that the last year saw the creation of 17000 jobs in the mining industry, perhaps Patel and his friends in the broad church are thinking of jobs along the lines of those at the infamous Aurora Mines of the Zuma – Mandela family where workers haven’t been paid for more than a year. Patel conveniently omitted to mention that jobs in mining shrunk from 500 000 in 2007, to 346 000 in 2008, 296 000 in 2009 and to 303 000 in 2010; a net loss of 200 000 in three years. “The global economic crisis”, many will point out to which the answer; “Wake up, resource prices and demand are back at pre-crisis levels and the resource producing countries, except South Africa naturally, are coining it. We are too busy destroying a good thing.”


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?


The Great South African Mining Disaster

February 24, 2010

Nic Holland, upon taking over at the helm at Goldfields, vowed to close down working places considered a safety risk. Being a man of his word and having the integrity of an old-style accountant he carefully assessed the risks and duly started shutting down workings considered to risky. Having not done the “Mining Math” properly in the first place, he found, perhaps too late, that he will eventually have risk free operations. That was however not the only reality that dawned upon him – he also found no risk means no gold and after all, that is what Goldfields is all about – mining gold. With every risky place they stopped the gold output fell inexplicably; A difficult concept? Not really. Most call it common sense. As the saying goes; you do not make scrambled eggs without breaking a few eggs.

Nic Holland was not the only one trying to get rid of the “risky” operations. Anglo American’s Cynthia Carroll went a bit further and sold all of AngloGold Ashanti, getting rid of a whole whack of dangerous operations in one foul swoop. She went further and then publicly claimed a massive reduction in mining related fatalities at Anglo – a novel variation on the concept of selling your problems to the uninformed – in this case selling your deaths, sweetened with a splattering of gold to the unsuspecting foreigners. Fortunately in this case the foreigners got a bit more than a smattering of gold with the Africa operations that came with the South African assets. My reckoning; if Julius and friends succeed in nationalising the South African mines with compensation the foreigners can get rid of the South African poison pill – the deal of a lifetime.

As this drama continues to unfold, South African mining production continues to fall sharply. At a time when the gold price is at its most favourable in decades, South African gold production has reached an all time low of 232 tonnes, less than half the 490 tonnes produced in 1985 and falling ever faster. Ironically, as the gold production from South Africa was dragged down by labour issues, government regulation and risk aversion, output from the rest of the world, particularly the rest of Africa and China rose sharply.

Looking at the latest round of reporting by mining companies, it is particularly noticeable how many companies reported a great number of production days lost due to safety issues a new inclusion in their reports. As in the case of Goldfields, the South African mining industry will come to the realisation that the easiest way to ensure no risk is to shut the mines down.

With the loss of 15 000 jobs in the mining industry in 2009, a year when resource prices were showing a recovery  from the global recession with the gold price reaching an all time high, South African mineral production continued to fall.   

Having said that, it is particularly noticeable how the cause of accidents and the reasons for Section 54’s, Mine closure orders, are glibly attributed to the owners and management. When an incompetent and reckless miner, holding a certificate issued under the auspices of the relative government department, blows himself and his colleagues up by smoking in an area which he has tested as being laden with methane, management is blamed, the mine is closed down and the bad and twisted – by the Union and the Department of mineral Resources – publicity, loss in production and subsequent revenue loss accrues to shareholder.

No wonder Patrice Motsepe is so keen to give his mines to Julius Inc., compliments the South African taxpayer. He learned from Cynthia Carroll.


The Death of a Minister

February 8, 2010

With eminent miners, Nic Holland’s and Nicky Oppenheimer’s, expression of faith and confidence in mining life in South Africa, according to Susan Shabangu, potential investors and mine owners alike can be forgiven for thinking everything was hunky-dory.

Their belief, that the nonsensical and poorly written discussion document released by the ANC Kindergarten is nothing but a hallucination and a bag of typical Malema hot air, is totally understandable considering the utterances by Jeremy Cronin and Gwede Mantashe on Nationalisation. But then, what do Holland and Oppenheimer know, spending the bulk of their time plotting their divestment from South Africa they are bound to be slightly out of touch with reality.  

Shabangu, in the mean time, having assured investors that mines will only be nationalised over her dead body, must have seen her life flashing by for a moment on Sunday when Chairperson and stop-gap Ex-Deputy President, Baleke Mbete, informed ANC heavyweights that ministers and cadres should familiarise themselves with the content of the much-vaunted aforementioned position paper. As for the hapless white-Messiah, Jeremy Cronin, one can only wonder what the future holds.

It seems Shabangu’s past contributions – notably the shoot-to-kill policy, subsequently hi-jacked in spectacular style by Fikile Mbalula; mentor and friend of Malema – counts for nothing as she fights for her life, so to speak. Jeremy Cronin, unlike Kortbroek van Schalkwyk and Barbara Hogan, despite his many years of experience in struggle politics, still do not know his place in the pecking order.

From Mbete’s stance it is patently clear that the views of Malema prevails with the ANC heavies and the Long Schlong himself, who briefly popped out of bed to put to make it clear which hole he is drilling in a manner of speaking. It seems Malema, the Long Schlong’s love child and favourite son – according to that much respected genealogist, Mr. Ben Trovato, wields a bit more power with the elders than the inconsistent Shabangu and the dapper but naïve Cronin.

My advise to Oppenheimer and Holland; “Hedge your bets and, like Cynthia Carroll and so many others, go to Luthuli House and join the queue at Malema’s door. Perhaps the rotund little boy can find it in his heart to arrange a deal with the new movers and shakers in the Mining Industry, Mandela and Zuma Inc.