It’s Mining Indaba time: the week where the mining industry – the well-heeled parts, at least – gather in Cape Town’s swanky convention centre to see and be seen. Everyone, from Susan Shabangu to Patrice Motsepe, is attending, and considering the shocker of a year just experienced by the sector, you might imagine there would be some interesting discussions taking place. There probably are – behind the scenes. Just don’t expect anyone to say anything controversial in public: everyone’s firmly on script. Nationalisation bad, government-corporate partnership good, no more Marikanas. Got it?
The existence of the Mining Indaba is very good news – for Cape Town, and for the private company which runs it. Cape Town makes boodles of cash off the companies and governments whose delegates attend the circus – reportedly more than R336 million over the last five years – with hotels around the International Convention Centre rumoured to charge steep rates for the 20,000 room nights necessary for the occasion. (If you’re in the area, for instance, why not stop by the Westin Hotel for their special “Mining Buffet” lunch. For a meagre R280, you can help yourself to a few plates of cold meat, salad and some bruschetta. It’s an absolute steal.)
The event is run by Mining Indaba LLC, an American company incorporated in 2009 and based in St Louis, Missouri.Tickets to the event don’t come cheap: if you fail to register early, and aren’t affiliated to a sponsor, expect to shell out $1,800 (almost R16,000) for the privilege of attendance. (If you’re a student, you have it easier: $300 (R2,657) – assuming you are “an undergraduate student studying the mining or metals fields”.) The prohibitive pricing of the event has led to charges that organisers are deliberately excluding any potentially oppositional voices, like those of civil society or – crazy idea – miners. “What are they talking about in there?” an activist outside the convention centre asked on Tuesday.
Well, they were talking about all the issues that have beset the mining industry in recent years. Sort of. Anyone who considers the industry to be in crisis would have found little sign of that in Tuesday’s discussions. Opening proceedings, Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu immediately took steps to head off the bogey-man of nationalisation. “Nationalisation is not an option for our country,” Shabangu re-affirmed. “I appeal to you not to try to resuscitate this debate.” (Who exactly was she appealing to there? It wasn’t like the ANC Youth League was sharing a stage with Cynthia Carroll in the next plenary.)
Shabangu was also quick to raise the spectre of Marikana, though at pains to note the “broader socio-economic challenges” which underpinned the tragedy: “Poor housing and living conditions, high levels of illiteracy, and low skills level”. The country and the industry, Shabangu said, “cannot afford the prospect of another Marikana.” Given the theme of the Indaba – Investing in African Mining – it’s likely that she meant the economic losses incurred as a result of the labour unrest as well as the human toll.
In the light of the recent controversies surrounding the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and its dispute with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), the subject of union conflict was raised during Shabangu’s subsequent press conference. The NUM has strong ties to the government, a journalist suggested: is the government’s relationship with the union entirely impartial?
“We have historical ties with NUM,” Shabangu replied, as a union formed in repressive times. “They are still our friends, and we will continue being friends. That does not mean we are subjective or unconditional in our support.” Fortunately, a NUM representative was on hand to corroborate this – perhaps oddly, given that last year the NUM denounced the Mining Indaba as a “cheap talk-shop”, and a “platform where captains of mining industry gather to lament and cry foul about the reduction of their ill-gotten gains.”
Last week Shabangu came down hard on Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) over its plans to cut 14,000 jobs due to losses of R1,47 billion: Shabangu denounced the union as a “child” who had to be brought back into line. But at the Mining Indaba she betrayed no hint of this tension, saying at her post-address press conference that she understood the “pain” faced by the platinum sector, and stressing the need to find joint solutions. “It’s not their problem, it’s our problem as a country,” Shabangu said.
This more conciliatory tone will be welcomed in some quarters: Business Day columnist David Gleason wrote on Tuesday that, “Shabangu’s attitude either needs to be softened or she should be moved to another position. The mining industry in SA is too fragile at present for hectoring, bullying and inefficiency.” Perhaps National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel had had a word with Shabangu. In his address to the Indaba on Monday, Manuel appeared to make reference to Shabangu’s spat with Amplats by saying: “We need to lower the volume of exchanges between us; we need to get into a mode where we can persuade each other where the volume is not amplified.”
The Amplats defence – as given in the swansong address of outgoing Anglo boss Cynthia Carroll on Tuesday – seemed to be that the company will go ahead with the retrenchments, but its restructuring will eventually create many more jobs than it wants to shed now. “The proposals include what I believe to be the most comprehensive and imaginative social plan created by any company in any sector in South Africa,” Carroll said. “We are targeting to create at least as many jobs as the 14,000 that may be affected by the restructuring. And that is on top of a target to redeploy 9,000 of the employees who may be affected.”
Carroll also used her address to remind South Africa how much it owes mining. In 2011, she said, mining directly contributed 9,2% of South Africa’s GDP; 13,5 million people are dependent on mining-generated jobs. In 2011, 89% of the South African total mining industry expenditure was spent within the country. “Through wages, taxes, purchases and investments – this is an industry that makes a vital contribution.”
But the people she most needed to convince of this fact were not seated in the hall in front of her. Some of them were outside the convention centre, where protestors from the Alternative Mining Indaba (AMI) had marched on the conference to make their complaints heard. A venture now in its fourth year, the AMI aims to give voice to mining’s critics, and members of mining-affected communities. Made up of a collective of NGOs and faith-based organisations, the impetus for the initiative came from Tanzania, where mining communities complained of toxic effects on health. “For 18 years the Mining Indaba has been meeting and talking about dividing up mineral resources, but there is no representation of people that live in these areas and are most seriously inconvenienced,” Mandla Hadebe, programme manager for the Economic Justice Network, told the Daily Maverick.
The group of protestors carried signs bearing the words “Remember the slain of Marikana”, “No To Tax Dodgers”, and “If It’s Not Okay In Canada, It’s Not Okay In Africa!” The reception they received when they arrived at the convention centre, Hadebe said, was hostile. “Nobody would accept responsibility for our petition,” Hadebe said. “Not the Chamber of Mines, not a government representative. We were forceful and refused to leave, and eventually they brought one of the logistics organisers of the Indaba to receive the petition.”
Among their demands are a call for greater tax responsibilities for corporations; governmental assurance that mining revenues will be redistributed equally; an emphasis on the pursuit of alternative development paths beyond mining; and more meaningful environmental and social impact assessments. One of their concerns is that it is foreigners, rather than people of the SADC nations, who are enriching themselves off the plunder of African minerals: “Our Mineral Resources, Our Future”, read one sign.
Someone who might not share this worry is Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, who delivered easily the most engaging talk of the day on the topic of “Winner takes all: China’s race for resources and what it means for the world”. This is also the title of Moyo’s book on the same subject of 2012. Moyo is by no means an uncontroversial figure: her 2009 book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa, was slammed by many for its thesis that foreign aid is a negative influence on Africa. “Her grasp of the political economy of Africa is lamentable,” wrote the aid-lovin’ Guardian. Nonetheless, that book, and two subsequently, have gone on to become New York Times bestsellers.
Moyo’s idea is quite simple: that an expanding world population, and in particular an expanding global class, will one day cause a critical shortage of resources. So far, nothing new there. But Moyo holds that the Chinese alone have truly woken up to the significance of future crisis, and are embarking on what she calls “a global shopping spree”, buying up commodities in Africa, the Middle East, South America, and practically anywhere else they can. “It is a systematic, deliberate, multi-continental campaign for natural resources,” Moyo said on Tuesday.
In particular, China is targeting what Moyo calls the “axis of the unloved”: emerging countries with large, young, poor populations. But rather than engaging these nations aggressively, China is offering them whatever they need: job creation, trade, new infrastructure projects. China has deep pockets, and its political imperative back home is to continue economic growth at whatever cost. In 2005, Moyo says, China bought a mountain in Peru – half the size of Mount Everest – for its copper resources.
Again, you might think this is nothing new: most people in Africa are aware of China’s growing involvement on the continent. But what is novel is Moyo’s response to this: unlike many, she doesn’t see this trend as holding any sinister agenda. In the Western press, she says, China is portrayed as having neo-colonialist intentions and a poor record on both environmental and human rights concerns. “These claims are in some cases exaggerated and in others plain wrong,” Moyo claims.
She cited a 2007 Pew Institute study of 10 countries in Africa, where respondents were asked what they thought about Chinese involvement in their country. Contrary to a frequent media perception to the contrary, the Africans said “consistently, by wide margins” that they had a favourable impression of China and China’s record of delivering jobs and creating infrastructure. “China is the USA’s largest creditor and nobody complains about human rights,” Moyo said. “In Africa, suddenly it’s re-colonisation.”
Moyo has in the past been accused of cherry-picking certain examples to prove her theories and studiously ignoring contradictory evidence. In particular reference to Winner Takes It All, some critics have also said that her premise of a commodity crisis on the scale she anticipates is questionable and based on Malthusian fears of population explosion. Others have pointed out that her thesis is predicated on the continued prodigious growth of China, the economy of which may already have peaked.
But Moyo’s talk must have been music to the ears of the seemingly large Chinese delegation at the Mining Indaba: getting the audience warmed up for the Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources-sponsored cocktail reception on Tuesday evening. Moyo is in many ways the perfect speaker for Mining Indaba: the markets are fair, growth is the goal, and the winner will indeed take it all.
Written by: Rebecca Davis
Picture credit: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
- Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford University. This article was published on the Daily Maverick.