Mining Indaba 2014: Brave faces in uncertain times

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Any way you look at it, this isn’t the brightest or most beautiful time for South African mining – if there’s ever been one. Strikes in the platinum sector are costing the industry an estimated R197 million per day. On Tuesday, as all the major players in African mining gathered at Cape Town’s swish Convention Centre for the annual Mining Indaba, SAPS had to disperse 3,000 “violent protestors” at an Amplats shaft. But the industry was putting on a bullish face – despite some nostalgic references to the “good old days”.

Given the fact that AMCU members have been on strike since 23 January, it was unsurprising that Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu had to devote a good portion of her opening address to the Mining Indaba, and a subsequent press conference, to allaying investor jitters about the state of labour relations in South African mining. She preceded this nonetheless with a swipe at the media for blowing the issue out of proportion: “When we look at the current headlines, they tend to focus exclusively on such issues as labour instability,” Shabangu said, though given the scale of the current strike, and its financial impact, it’s hard to make the case that it’s somehow not newsworthy.

“Government has intervened boldly and decisively to provide leadership and restore stability in the sector,” Shabangu continued. This was an apparent reference to Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s brokering of a Framework Agreement for a Sustainable Mining Industry in July last year between government, labour and business – an agreement which AMCU continues to refuse to sign. The DA has since complained, in contrast to Shabangu’s confident assertion, that since the signing of the agreement, “the deputy president’s task team has gone silent and would appear to be wringing its hands while labour unrest threatens to destabilise the mining sector”.

But at the Mining Indaba Shabangu has a very specific audience: industry bigwigs and investors who have paid in some cases upwards of R20,000 to attend the four-day event. Part of her job is to make them feel safe, which is why it was necessary for her to “confidently declare that we have restored the rule of law, peace and stability in this industry” even as police would, just a few hours later, use rubber bullets and water cannons to break up striking miners at an Amplats shaft. It was also why Shabangu sought to “debunk the myth” that South African labour laws “are only created to protect workers”, while also having to affirm the right of workers to strike.

Just a day before, at a Mining Indaba-related event, lawfirm Bowman Gilfillan’s John Brand had made a strong case for restructuring the union organising systems within mines to do away with the need to have a 50% majority to have organisational rights on a mine. “Unions have to compete democratically,” Mining Weekly quoted Brand as saying. But when a journalist asked Shabangu if she was in favour of a more open industrial democracy, she responded irritably: “There’s sufficient democracy.”

“All rights have limitations,” Shabangu continued. “You can’t just go on and strike and think you can bulldoze any action.”

Shabangu also used her platform to affirm the government’s commitment to going ahead with shale gas exploration, saying that they would move ahead “decisively, yet responsibly”. She said that following the collection of public comments on the draft regulations for the development of shale gas in the Karoo, the final regulations would be released “shortly”. Shabangu indicated that a public campaign is currently ongoing, involving visiting affected communities to tell them about the government’s fracking plans and their attendant benefits. Presumably, they’re also allaying a lot of heartfelt environmental concerns.

Environmental sustainability is a buzz-phrase at this year’s Indaba, although it’s not on the agenda as much as it is as the parallel ‘Alternative Mining Indaba’, happening simultaneously. Now in its fifth year of existence, the Alternative Mining Indaba brings together religious leaders, academics, civil society figures and members of communities affected by mining to discuss the less palatable effects of mining’s impact on the global south. Agenda items include a Human Rights Watch report into the violation of land rights by mining companies in Uganda.

Organised dissent will come to the genteel door of the Mining Indaba on Thursday, when civil society and unions – led by NUM – will march on the Convention Centre to protest against mining giant Rio Tinto’s worldwide operations, and its “extensive experience in causing one conflict after another with trade unions, indigenous organisations and environmental groups”. Almost every year there is a protest of some kind outside the Indaba, but their ripples are barely noticed inside the centre’s walls, where CEOs give glowing White Paper presentations and African mining minsters hobnob secretively in a special lounge.

But industry players are certainly aware that their context has changed: that mining-affected communities are more cognisant of their rights and African governments more vocally demanding in their expectations from their relationships with the mining giants, even if in some quarters there’s an almost palpable sense of regret about this shifting terrain. The World Wildlife Fund’s Morne du Plessis reminded his audience on Tuesday that across the world, communities are dealing with the fall-out from “high-impact, poorly-planned” mining operations.

Du Plessis cited the example of Johannesburg’s acid mine water problem, saddling South African taxpayers with a clean-up bill in excess of R30 billion. “History tells us that the mining sector has well earned the distrust of civil society,” he said.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Oxford economist Paul Collier, author ofThe Bottom Billion, was on hand to remind mining companies in Africa that they have a “good message to sell to everyone: you are fundamental drivers of development in society”. He suggested, in fact, that the mining sector was practically “right up there with hospitals”. Collier advised mining companies to invest heavily in infrastructure in their host African countries: railways, power plants, and so on. In this way, Collier said, they could build a “big constituency of people whose lives are dependent on what you’ve done”.

Collier said that he sensed that in the past, the mining industry had tried to sell two different messages to two different audiences. To communities and civil society, a message leaning heavily on CSI initiatives and corporate goodwill – “saying, ‘we’re really a charity’. You’re not a charity”. To shareholders, a message affirming their intention to wring every last cent possible out of extraction. The latter is not a credible message, Collier said, because it “fouls relationships with government and workforce”.

“You’ve got to have the same message to all audiences,” Collier said. “Gone are the days when you could compartmentalise messages.” It’s a lesson that you can see the players at Mining Indaba grappling with every year more. 

By Rebecca Davis

Source: Daily Maverick

Photo: South Africa's Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, smiles during an interview at the Reuters Global Mining and Steel Summit in New York, March 10, 2010.  REUTERS/Brendan McDermid