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SA and Nationalisation

This year’s annual mining Indaba in Cape Town had more of a buzz to it, in comparison with 2009. Zimbabwe’s potential gained a particularly high profile; many see opportunities in this geologically rich terrain that has experienced little modern exploration. As more than one project developer notes, first one looks at the geological potential and only then does one assess the country political and other risks.

In spite of the fact that Mugabe is still around, people are positioning themselves for if and when Zimbabwe adopts governance that inspires greater international investment confidence. They use words like ‘could’ and ‘positive trends’ and are living in hope. Signals are mixed; some governing officials in Zimbabwe say that security of title will be guaranteed but others talk about ensuring that Zimbabweans will have a controlling interest of all mineral assets.

Yet at some point Mugabe and his cronies will indeed be gone. Of course much has to be done, like implement rule of law so that diamond fields such as Marange which is controlled by politically connected thugs, reverts to its actual and legal owner, an exploration group which at the moment is unable to implement its rights.

However, it is, south of the border, the continent’s economic powerhouse that many international investors and potential investors are watching closely. And South Africa’s government is behaving as if it has at last realised that it needs to compete with other countries for mining investment.

The South African government at least made the right noises at this year’s Indaba. In her keynote speech minister of minerals Susan Shabangu promised to halve the time taken to process applications for prospecting and mining rights in South Africa, respectively from six to three months and from 12 to six months. She talked about the need to ensure transparency and avoid opportunities for corruption.

Later at the Indaba she reiterated what senior government officials have said at other forums over the past year, that nationalisation of South Africa’s mining industry is not government policy.

However in response, the ANC’s youth league head Julius Malema attacked Shabangu, and simply based on the noise he is making, some investors will shun the country. They will shun it because it is seen as potentially experimenting with nationalisation of its mining sector long after others such as Brazil and Chile have given that up as a really stupid idea.

For a long time the concept of nationalisation of industries such as South Africa’s mining sector was seen as too silly to be mentioned seriously, but such has been the persistence in promoting this idea in certain quarters that are perceived to be politically influential that it has become a topic of discussion.

Sadly those noises do affect some people. An example was the response of one attendee at the Indaba, not a first language English speaker, who asked fellow delegates, what is this nationalisation being talked about, you mean like Chavez? When the response was, ‘er, yes’, he asked, you mean, expropriation without compensation, and the response again was ‘er, yes’; you could see the delegate mentally packing his bags.

The government responded well to investors on the topic, and while the current power structure is in place common sense will prevail. Government officials did not only make statements that nationalisation will not happen, but explained in painstaking detail that policy is not formulated on the back of a matchbox, and that neither the ANC’s freedom charter, nor the country’s constitution support or create the space for nationalisation of mining assets as called for by Malema.

But should enough of the existing policymakers be swept aside by populist self-serving forces within an ANC organisation whose political supremacy in South Africa has not yet been seriously challenged then anything could happen. In the end, a constitution is just a piece of paper.

Concern will have been alleviated when South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma did, a few days later in parliament, make a definitive statement and reiterated what his ministers were saying, that nationalisation of mines was not government policy.

South Africa’s ongoing electricity shortage, mitigated only by the temporary drop in global commodities demand, also remains a factor. Little has been done here to inspire confidence among international investors.

But when all is said, while a mining Indaba in Cape Town can attract 4,000 people, many of them international analysts and investors, something must be working. And while people can still openly air their thoughts on South Africa’s problems in detail at such forums the country is not yet a basket case.