So, there’s life in the old dog yet. More than five years of falling commodity prices, that saw tens of thousands of jobs lost, saw the critics predict the decline and fall of Africa’s world famous mining gathering in Cape Town.
The Mining Indaba was born, more than 20 years ago, in one room at the Cape Sun Hotel before growing to fill the cavernous Cape Town International Convention Centre.
Five years of waning interest and dwindling investment in Africa’s biggest mining industry, South Africa, has seen the numbers drop off amid fears that the gathering could end up back in one room at the Cape Sun 20 years hence.
This year, surprise surprise, commodity prices have shown signs of an uptick and so have the numbers for the Mining Indaba.
“We have invested more of our own resources to ensure that mining investment in Africa remains the overriding focus of the event, leading to an impressive increase in investor and mining company attendance. Investor attendance is up 65% and mining company attendance is up by about 50%,” says Alex Grose, the Managing Director of the Mining Indaba.
It is likely to be a tough job convincing these investors to plough money into South Africa after years of poor commodity prices and uncertainty. Even so, there is a sprinkle of optimism.
“I think globally we are seeing a lot of transactions on our M and A desks to give us optimism. The feeling among clients what are the commodity prices going to do. Most think we have turned the corner, but don’t expect fireworks. It’s not going to be like the commodity boom of the early 2000s,” says Jacques Erasmus, the global head of mining, for KPMG.
“I think we are heading for a good vibe at this year’s Indaba after five tough years. Many mining companies are 30 and 40% up on revenue, albeit from a very low base, which is a sign of improving commodity prices. I think there is enough revenue about to attract investment and create jobs,” says Peter Major, a mining analyst with Cadiz Corporate Solutions.
Despite this hint of optimism, investors will have to assess risk in South Africa before they leap.
For a start, the mining regulations are still up in the air. The government has amended the Minerals Petroleum and Resources Development Act with a promise to publish it before the end of 2016. Now the deadline has moved to the end of March, according to the government, meaning nearly a year of uncertainty since the draft amendments were released in April.
A large fly in the ointment, when the amended bill is gazetted, is likely to be that the government is expected to insist that companies stay 26% black owned at all times. This is certain to irk mine owners who are pushing for the “once empowered, always empowered” principle – that is, as soon as companies have transferred shares to black ownership they are deemed to have done their job in the spirit of the law, regardless even if those shares are sold back into white hands.
Overall the mining legislation in South Africa is seen in the boardrooms as far too open to ministerial discretion: ergo, open to political interference.
There are also concerns over rising costs and falling productivity. Throw into the mix union fears over the number of jobs that could be lost in the slow, but steady, march of mechanisation in the mines and you have volatility.
Just take the struggles of Lonmin, one of the world’s largest miners, that has been losing money hand-over-fist because cash costs of mining have exceeded the price of platinum. The company, that was bailed out by shareholders last year, may have to cut back on capital projects.
The numbers may have perked up for this year’s Mining Indaba, but the mood is the same – the easy money in mining has gone.