A changing of the guard of South Africa’s political leadership could usher in a new era of mining, ending years of questionable policy decisions that have hampered the industry.

In late December, the country’s ruling African National Congress held its elective convention to choose a new leader to replace Jacob Zuma, the party’s current leader and president of the country whose two-term tenure was at an end.

In a tightly fought race, Zuma’s chosen successor, his ex-wife Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, lost out to businessman Cyril Ramaphosa. Although slated to remain in office until elections in 2019, Zuma is likely to come under pressure to quit sooner and allow Ramaphosa, current vice president of the country, to take over.

Ramaphosa’s win is the best possible outcome for the beleaguered mining industry. He is cut from a very different cloth than Zuma. A lawyer by training and a founder of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s, which led the fight against the then-apartheid regime that officially ended in 1994. Ramaphosa himself was a key figure in negotiating the country’s constitution that paved the way to end white rule.

Sidelined in the years following Nelson Mandela’s presidency, Ramaphosa turned to business and built up a fortune that Forbes estimates at $675 million. His interests vary but include mining, and until recently, he held a seat on the board of Lonmin, the world’s third largest platinum producer.

His connection to Lonmin was, as it turned out, Ramaphosa’s biggest obstacle during his campaign. During a violent strike at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in 2012, 44 people were killed including 32 gunned down by police. Shortly before what would become known as the Marikana Massacre, Ramaphosa wrote senior police officials to intervene in the strike that included attacks on company property. “I felt like this needed the police to take appropriate action to arrest those involved in acts of criminality,” Ramaphosa said.

His critics have claimed Ramaphosa’s message to police amounted to an order to shoot to kill. A subsequent judicial inquiry cleared him of all culpability, but the incident has continued to weigh on his reputation.

Now that the election campaign is over, however, Ramaphosa can put the incident behind him. For the mining sector, change of leadership could not come soon enough. The country’s Chamber of Mines put out a research paper in late December, that described the industry as “moribund.”

The chamber surveyed 16 of the country’s largest mining companies and found that investment remained flat between 2009 and now. New mine build has halved since 2012 with most cash flowing into existing operations, the chamber said.

But, this could quickly change should the policy regime improve.

“The findings of the survey illustrate that the leadership focus in South Africa must shift to creating an attractive policy, regulatory and governance environment,” chamber CEO Roger Baxter said. “Through ethical leadership, good governance and the adoption of competitive, stable and predictable policies —considerable new investment in mining can take place.”

Currently, the industry expects capital expenditure of almost $12 billion in the coming year. But this could potentially increase another $10 billion in a more stable and conducive environment, the survey found.

To get the money flowing into the industry again, Ramaphosa will have to move quickly to do the following:

Remove Mines Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who has driven the latest draft of the Mining Charter, a set of laws that wants to introduce new black ownership targets for the industry. Zwane’s replacement should be in office before the annual Mining Indaba, Africa’s largest resource investment conference. The Indaba is traditionally the coming out party for new mining minister incumbents.

Recall the Mining Charter and open new talks on its provisions, this time including the mining sector itself. The present charter was drafted entirely without industry input and sprung upon mining companies when released last year.

Commit to ending the rampant mismanagement of state-owned utilities. Mines are dependent on Eskom, the country’s electricity provider for energy; many also rely on Transnet, the state’s freight rail operator to move ore. Corrupt political appointees to management have turned these operations into loss-making entities that squeeze their customers — the mines — for money. Ramaphosa will have to show he has the stamina to root out corrupt officials and return these companies to peak efficiency.

Open dialogue with the industry. Relations between South Africa’s mines — that account for around half the country's export revenue — have never been as bad. Company executives complain that queries they have around the ever-changing legal environment go ignored. Whereas most African extractive states now have liaisons to ensure rapid communication between companies and senior government officials.

Finally, settle the longstanding uncertainty around once-empowered, always empowered. Companies say they strive to meet black ownership targets, but if the black partner should cash out, the parent company should still be regarded as empowered, rather than scramble to seek a new partner.

In 2010, Citigroup estimated South Africa still held $2.5 trillion worth of mineral reserves, well ahead of both Australia and Russia, whose resources are estimated at $1.6 trillion each. The country is also well-placed to take advantage of emerging smart energy technologies such as battery storage and fuel cells.

Platinum, zinc, nickel and vanadium production demand could offset the gold industry, now in its twilight years. Ramaphosa may well be the man to return South African mining to its place on the world stage.

The chambers’ Baxter said that should Ramaphosa bring mining and government back together, both would derive mutual benefit.

“Not only would this result in a significant growth in annual investment, but there would be a sizable increase in jobs, export earnings, GDP and, importantly, transformation,” Baxter said.

 

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