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The minister delivered an address this week which had many conference delegates scratching their heads, says Peter Fabricius.
Pretoria - Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu is a hit in Western Australia. She is a regular feature at the annual Africa Down Under mining conference in Perth, having attended most of them over the last decade.
Western Australia’s Premier Colin Barnett is a chum and Australia’s federal Minister for Resources and Energy Gary Gray, an MP from Perth (who is fighting what seems to be a losing battle for his seat in the September 7 general elections; sadly, because he is a pleasant fellow) will hear no wrong of her.
The one person who is evidently not her friend is her speech writer! Or perhaps this anonymous person just needs someone with a sharp red pen to edit her speeches. She delivered an address at the conference this week which had many conference delegates scratching their heads.
It contained resounding phrases such as “there have been more days of halcyon for investors than the ephemeral bedlam of last August that should not be treated as a permanent feature of the mining sector in South Africa”.
Okay, deciphered, that meant the Marikana massacre should not be taken as a typical event in South African mining.
But how about: “What is needed today is implementation and not a conservation about models such as ‘resource nationalism’. In the recent years, this concept has been extensively exhausted and bedded in South Africa and elsewhere in the world.
“The renewed proponents of resource nationalisms are intent on reneging their environmental and social legacy, using arguments such as mitigating exposure to developing economies as being good for their share price.”
That passage puzzled even seasoned observers of South African and Australian mining. Was she trying to say advocates of nationalising South Africa’s mines, notably Julius Malema, were queering the pitch by scaring off potential investors?
A direct word with the minister after dinner revealed otherwise. The problem was the word “proponent”. Shabangu’s happily anonymous speech writer evidently meant “opponent”. “Resource nationalism” did not mean “nationalisation of mines” as a casual observer might conclude; it just meant, in broader terms, the exploitation of mineral resources in such a way as to benefit the host country and its ordinary people.
So she was berating South African mining houses who objected to royalty taxes designed to capture more public benefits from mining.
Smarter listeners should have deduced that from the general tone of the speech, of course. Shabangu attracted some criticism for advising foreign investors to “moderate” their expectations of returns, because of the need to leave a share for the upliftment of mine workers who were victims of past injustices in mining.
Nick Holland, chief executive of Gold Fields, who was sitting on the podium with her, later took issue with her on this, saying one could not tell investors to expect less – or they would invest elsewhere.
Maybe Holland was retaliating because Shabangu had him in mind when she slammed an unnamed mining house for paying its chief executive over R45 million in a year, even though the company’s production had dropped 30 percent in that year.
Shabangu also laid the blame for the “bedlam” of Marikana squarely on the shoulders of the mining companies, saying migrant labour, poor conditions and low wages at the mine had sparked the disaster.
It’s surely valid to expect mining companies to pay their due to help overcome the injustices of the past. Shabangu was in sympathetic company because, as Barnett advised African governments, they should sell their mining resources to mining companies at a fair price in the form of royalties – as Australia does – and not give them away as both Australia and Africa have done in the past.
But for Shabangu to effectively allocate to the mining houses a complete monopoly of responsibility for Marikana – ignoring union rivalry, police brutality etc as probable contributing causes – was not convincing.
* Peter Fabricius is foreign editor of Independent Newspapers.