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Digging For Profits

Every citizen of our world will need 1,343 metric tons of minerals, metals and fuels in their lifetime. That helps explain why Cape Town’s annual Mining Indaba—the third largest in the world, arguably at the highest level—is a huge event.

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Virtually all that stuff has to be dug out of the ground. Mined. Then manufactured, transported, sold and consumed.

First, it has to be found, where it hides, mostly deep underground. So, exploration companies with their massive machines, technology, geologists, agronomists, hydrologists, geophysicists and acoustical engineers flock to the Mining Indaba at Africa’s Southern tip. As do prospectors, who tell exploration companies where to look.

Then come the investigative drillers, reserve definers, junior miners and risk assessors, metals analysers, remote camp builders and computer software writers. Feeding at the edges, as always, are the lawyers.  Next come those who do actual mine construction. Here, the big boys get involved: banks, investors, partners, governments, fund managers, engineers, employment agencies. Lawyers move in. And we still have nothing tangible, nothing yet taken out of the ground to feed metals and minerals to a hungry populace.

Minister, Susan Shabangu

Once gold, copper, coal, iron ore, bauxite and a hundred other elements surface from undergound, a new breed of people get involved, until the cars, jewellery, electricity or cellphone gets the stuff into consumer hands.

The extracted total of mining production is worth two trillion dollars, putting the worth of the whole industry and associated ones at about $2,000 trillion.

The Indaba itself? Probably worth $20 million. And its value to Cape Town? Ten times that.

There are 3,000 listed exploration and mining companies, half of them in Canada. The three deepest mines are in South Africa. Coal is easily the most valuable mined commodity, with 7,700 million tons a year worth an annual $693 billion. The next three are iron (2,000 million tons worth $238 billion), gold (257,000 tons worth $132 billion) and copper (16 million tons worth $122 billion). All these numbers from Chris Hinde of IntierraRMG, who ran “A three-hour PhD in Mining” at the 2013 Indaba.

Besides the 7,532 people registered for this year’s event, there were around that number again hanging around, often in suites near the venue, organising meetings with those who are registered.

One top chief executive of a mining company told me: “I don’t bother to go in anymore, otherwise I have to say ‘hi’ to a lot of people instead of just talking to the ones I need to meet. I take a room and get investors to see me privately.”

In the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) itself are hordes of people in black suits and red ties, anxious looking if they need money, urbane if they are investors or lawyers. Milling about, chatting, drinking, eating and of course networking.

Oh, and there are speeches as well. As a fraction of total delegates, the audience for scheduled addresses seldom exceeds half, which is still close to 4,000 listeners in the hall. Yet the talks are fascinating, especially the women this year. South Africa’s minister of mines, Susan Shabangu, tried to allay investors’ fears about real nationalization but failed to convince them that creeping resource nationalization in the form of taxes, labor laws, fees, licences, community demands and union demands were not a threat to investment. One mine owner muttered: “We’ve already been nationalized, we just didn’t notice it…”

Anglo American CEO, Cynthia Carroll, responded by telling the minister and her Cabinet colleagues: “Mining companies need to work in partnership with their employees and trade unions, to move on from conflict and to build positive relationships for the future. Partnership between business and government is also critical, particularly in ensuring that development objectives and initiatives are aligned. Partnership is essential. But it isn’t easy. Partnership is about dialogue—not monologue. It requires listening as well as talking. And above all it requires understanding and acceptance. Companies need to understand that in a vibrant democracy there will always be a lively political debate, in which not all the views expressed will be to the liking of business. In return, governments and political parties need to accept that business has an important role to play and a legitimate voice that deserves to be heard. Business is a partner, not a pariah.”

The third tough woman speaker was Mamphela Ramphele, who told delegates to be patient when asked if she was creating a new political party.

Her substantive address damned the current government by saying, to a ripple of laughter: “For the most, mining tax revenues vanish in the black hole that is the central fiscus and end up funding large rural estates for presidents.”

She took the audience on a tour of the key issues needing frank discussion if a viable and sustainable future for mining is to be forged. How do you build a mine to best share the resource? How do you deal with legacy issues to enable co-ownership of risk and reward? What needs to change to create sustainable economies and socio-political systems?

There were many speakers, each with platinum-plated wisdom to convey. It can get too much, so I took a tour of the 400 stalls in the exhibition center, mostly manned by Australians—who love Cape Town, seem to despise their government and see Africa as the future of mining globally.  Every single one told me they were happy to be at the Indaba ($12,500 per stand), would be back next year, and did not expect to do business but were there to collect leads for future business.

Jonathan Moore, MD of the Mining Indaba, said because it attracted investors and mining chief executives, it should probably not grow to be very much bigger as quality could suffer.

“It was started by a bright female entrepreneur, Sandy Lawrence, who realized when SA came out of apartheid there would be an opportunity. The first one only had about 200 people, but after it grew bigger she sold it to a private equity firm who held it for about five years, and Summit Business Media, based mostly in New York, bought it in 2007. She thought the intent of the event should be to drive foreign dollars into African mining.”

It has certainly done that.

“I bring 15 people from the USA but employ locals for PR, tech, IT, printing, signage, transport, bags, building stands, some 50 to 60 temps, security. We fill hotels, flights, restaurants, the CTICC, taxis, shops.”

“The CTICC is world-class, as are the staff. Everyone is happy to have it in Cape Town, and the city benefits big time. The world is still waking up to what this continent of Africa has to offer. The Indaba has moved in unison with that awakening and in a few decades things will be very different from now. We haven’t come close to tapping Africa’s mining resource.”

Levels of optimism are high, despite Marikana and the platinum recession. New finds everywhere, all bigger, better, richer, higher grade. Only the Australians seem unhappy, probably because they have to return to a depressed economy coupled with boring politicians.

Africa is on the move. Most of the stuff that has to be dug out of the ground, metals and minerals and increasingly oil and the gas, will come from Africa. Those who will reap the rewards of doing that are the people who people the corridors of the Mining Indaba. It is simply one of the world’s most successful conferences.

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