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South Africa’s Mining Indaba: Bridging ‘The Great Nothing

Expectations Rise for Tangible Policies and Private Sector Engagement

by Oluwatosin Alabi

As the 30th Investing in African Mining Indaba is set to commence in Cape Town from February 5 to 8, 2024, the mining sector and investors are casting a critical eye back to the 2023 event, particularly focusing on the addresses by South Africa’s Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, and President Cyril Ramaphosa. The previous year’s speeches were marked by unfulfilled promises and a perceived disconnect from the practical realities of the mining industry, earning the label “The Great Nothing” from observers.

This term, “The Great Nothing,” originally a cosmological reference to a vast empty space known as the Boötes Void, has metaphorically come to represent the chasm between the South African government’s policies and the actual needs and realities of the mining sector. This gap, much like the void, signifies a large area of inactivity or lack of substantial content.

One of the key criticisms leveled at Minister Mantashe was his missed opportunity to address pressing issues within the sector or to establish new, actionable targets. Instead of offering solutions, he seemingly shifted the responsibility to the private sector, suggesting that it was up to investors to find answers to the current challenges. This stance left many stakeholders puzzled about the leadership and direction being provided by Pretoria.

In an era where Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria are becoming increasingly important for investors, particularly concerning business ethics, human rights, and responsible sourcing, Mantashe’s failure to discuss developments or strategies in these areas was particularly noted. Addressing these softer, non-financial issues is crucial for improving investor confidence, especially in the African mining context.

Another significant oversight in Mantashe’s address was the absence of any concrete plan to enhance the efficiency of licensing processes, a longstanding issue for both mining and energy sectors in South Africa. The continued delay in implementing a mining cadaster system, essential for managing mining rights and information, was also conspicuous by its absence.

While Mantashe acknowledged the importance of geological data from the Council for Geosciences, there was an undercurrent of concern about potential state control over geoscience data. Such a move could shift the system from the current “first come, first served” approach to a tender-based system for awarding mining exploration permits, which could have significant implications for the sector.

On a positive note, the minister reiterated the importance of exploration and announced the establishment of a ZAR500 million fund to support emerging miners. However, this initiative needs efficient management and should be part of a broader, well-structured action plan, as outlined in the Exploration Strategy, to attract investment and prevent the underutilization of mineral resources.

President Ramaphosa, in his address, also appeared to challenge the private sector, urging companies to be more collaborative and less critical of the government. His call for the private sector to “stop moaning” and actively engage with government initiatives was a clear indication of his desire for a more cooperative approach.

One of the key issues stakeholders hope will be addressed in the upcoming Indaba is the ongoing challenges with coal exports through the Richards Bay Coal Terminal. With less than a week until the event, there is an anticipation for resolutions and a more constructive dialogue than what was witnessed last year.

The Investing in African Mining Indaba remains a crucial platform for discussing and shaping the future of mining in Africa. As the industry convenes once again, the focus will be on whether the South African government can bridge “The Great Nothing” – the gap between policy rhetoric and the tangible needs of the mining sector.

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