Modern Mining

Sadly, the state of South African mining is such that every positive development is soon balanced out by bad news. Like many others, I was heartened by the announcement recently by SepFluor that it had decided to proceed with the construction of the R1,7 billion Nokeng fluorspar mine north-east of Pretoria. True, R1,7 billion is hardly a mega-project but new mines are so thin on the ground these days that this is a highly welcome initiative.

Arthur Tassell commentConsider, though, that SepFluor’s announcement has come at a time when the mining industry has been shaken to the core by the government’s ill-conceived and, as the Chamber of Mines puts it, “unilaterally developed” Mining Charter and by the recent news that AngloGold Ashanti is going to be restructuring its South African operations, with a possible loss of 8 500 jobs – pretty much a third of its current South African workforce.

If this were not bad enough, we now have worrying news coming out of Platinum Group Metals (PTM), which is struggling with the ramp-up of its new Maseve mine in the Sun City area. The operation is currently being ‘restructured’ – again that doom-laden word – with the aim of transitioning from higher volume bord-and-pillar mining to a hybrid mining method. According to PTM, active mining has now been suspended but is expected to resume within a few weeks.

The impact of the mine’s under-performance on PTM’s ‘financials’ has been severe, with the company recording a net loss of US$287 million for the nine months ended May 31, 2017. During the nine-month period, it recorded a US$280 million impairment of the mine, which was taken “primarily to recognise the effect of missed production targets and the transition to a more gradual production rate from the hybrid mining method.”

The travails of South Africa’s mining industry have not, of course, gone unnoticed overseas. The Economist, for example, recently published an article entitled ‘Deep Trouble – South African mining is in crisis’. As it says, “South Africa’s mining industry is shrinking. At its peak in 1980, mining accounted for a fifth of the country’s GDP; the number now stands at 7,3 %. High costs, low commodity prices, labour strife and falling productivity have all taken their toll. Mines have shed 70 000 jobs over the past five years. More cuts are coming.”

None of these facts are new to anyone acquainted with our local mining industry and, indeed, the full extent of the crisis has been detailed by the Chamber of Mines. According to the Chamber, the mining sector is now smaller in real terms than it was in 1994 and it notes that over the past five years, mining’s contribution to GDP shrank by 0,2 % per annum, while the rest of the economy grew at 1,6 % per annum.

It gets worse. In 2015, the mining industry made a R31 billion loss and, at current prices, an estimated 60 % of the platinum mining sector is loss making. Profitability is well down and, over the past five years, has declined by a reported 8 %. As for employment, jobs in mining are disappearing at an alarming rate of about 1 500 a month.

Given these bleak metrics, it is little wonder that the Chamber has responded so pugnaciously to what it calls the ‘DMR charter’. It says that should the revised Charter be implemented in its present form, between 50 000 and 100 000 direct jobs are at risk in the sector. It continues: “The mining sector’s net fixed investment is already negative, with the sector not even covering depreciation. Given the deleterious impact of the Charter, this will result in declining production going forward which will negatively affect investment, production, GDP, employment, export earnings, taxes to the state and will undermine all the multiplier effects of mining into the rest of the economy.”

As just one example of how unbalanced the proposed new Charter is, the Chamber notes that one of its provisions mandates that holders of new mining rights will have to pay 1 % of turnover to the 30 % BEE shareholders. “It is fair to ensure that BEE shareholders receive a dividend stream – as the industry agreed in the 2010 charter,” says the Chamber. “But, using as an example national 2016 data, the total dividends paid by mining companies to shareholders was R6 billion. One per cent of revenues was R5,7 billion. Once the R5,7 billion is paid preferentially to the 30 % BEE holders, it would leave almost nothing for the remaining shareholders.”

As we all know, implementation of the Charter has now been suspended pending various legal processes. But that doesn’t mean that the battle has been won. One can only pray that reason ultimately prevails. Our industry is already on its knees. Implementation of the Charter could be a death blow, destroying the viability of an industry that for well over 100 years – and for all its faults – has been the main driver of South Africa’s economic growth.

Arthur Tassell

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Title: Editor
Name: Arthur Tassell
Email: mining@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

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Name: Bennie Venter
Email: benniev@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
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