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The mining industry is global in nature and we are seeing the completion of that process related to South Africa’s mining sector. I have been following the industry since the early 1990s and recall the excitement as the large mining groups were able to emerge from the cocoon of isolation and start spreading their wings, first tentatively and then with verve.

Large companies, such as Anglo American, had long chafed at the constraints that tied them to one country and hampered their further growth. These groups needed little invitation and rapidly completed their internationalisation process. Others became part of merged groups such as BHP Billiton. South Africa’s major gold companies have all pursued significant interests overseas to the extent that most of them are now truly international companies, and the platinum groups would have done the same had comparable orebodies existed.

Major project engineering companies soon followed, with groups such as Bateman establishing a global presence. Now we are seeing major construction groups and suppliers completing their process of internationalisation. These are companies that typically first ventured outside South Africa’s borders into Southern Africa, and then further across the continent. They are now competing in the global mining space in an increasingly global spread of jurisdictions.

An example is Murray & Roberts Cementation, which specialises in shaft sinking, raiseboring, and underground mine development. It is consolidating its internationalisation process through a more efficient management structure that will enable it to think as a genuine global company. It is one of only a few companies worldwide that operates in a specialised niche and it makes sense for it to become a truly international entity.

Process equipment and technology suppliers, such as Multotec, which no longer only pursue business in South Africa and Africa are also rapidly internationalising as it is the only way for them to sustain their long term growth paths. As with mining companies, others have internationalised as part of mergers with overseas groups, examples being Weir Warman and Golder Associates.

About a decade ago many of South Africa’s major suppliers and engineering companies were willing to follow their clients into Africa. However, they found themselves hampered when trying to obtain business from Australian and Canadian mining groups who understandably chose their preferred contractors from among groups with which they were more familiar. After a while some South African companies were unwilling to cede such an advantage and established presences in those regions to obtain such business. This was part of the process of internationalisation. Similarly, companies are experimenting with establishing low cost centres in Asia, which could also see them obtaining more direct business in that region.

The internationalisation of all the tiers of South Africa’s mining sector is extremely positive for the industry. When people pursue careers in places such as the EU or the USA, mining seldom is a popular choice, as it appears to offer limited prospects. In South Africa the opposite is true and mining is correctly seen as a career of choice. Thus a lot of the world’s mining expertise comes out of centres such as South Africa. If the country is not to simply export a great deal of its talent, it is helpful that South African companies are able to fulfil people’s international aspirations.

This internationalisation is also part of the sustainable development that springs out of the mining sector. South Africa would not be the continent’s engine and leading economy were it not for its successfully exploited great mineral wealth.

The country is not a global economic superpower and one has only to venture outside the mining sector to find numerous other areas, such as consumer electronics, where the highest level of interaction is with sales agents peddling international goods while having limited insight as to how they are put together. It is only then that one appreciates that mining is one of a few areas where a country like South Africa excels.

Not only is it one of the few industries where South Africa has a broad and deep expertise base, but it is one of the very few where people across the world watch the country with an interest in learning how it does things. This will increase along with the number of South African based international suppliers that benchmark themselves against the best the world has to offer in this field. It is the country’s window to access best practise across many disciplines where others around the world excel, for mining is a very multi-disciplinary industry. And, considering how South Africa is one of the major sources of mining engineering talent, it is also one of the centres against which others benchmark themselves.

For the continent of Africa it is a reminder why a robust mining industry should be nurtured, not discouraged.