Mining and politics in Africa are two completely different disciplines. However, in the bigger scheme of things, they are joined at the hip. What happens in the mining industry in Africa, has a significant impact on the politics and the economy of the resource-rich countries on the continent. On the other hand, politics affect mining. Good politics encourages foreign mining companies to invest, while bad politics has the opposite effect.
Although the mining industry is modernising rapidly, some things are likely to stay the same. Mechanising a traditional deep underground platinum or gold mine in South Africa, for instance, seems to be as difficult as breaking down established patrimonial political networks in some African countries. The old saying of the more things change the more they stay the same, is apt for the politics of countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe (in particular), just as much as it is for changing the way we mine. Mining needs a fresh approach, and mechanisation and automation shouldn’t be the holy grail. Yes, it’s the central axis around which modernisation rotates, but external factors surrounding the mine can have as big an impact on the operation as internal operational issues or new technology.
The politics and regulations in a host country, for example, are far more likely to make or break an early development project than the intended mining method. But change is likely to meet fierce resistance as those visionaries that have attempted to change the status quo in both mining operations and politics can attest to.
This month’s African Mining wears a new jacket, and in the first issue of African Mining (Incorporating Mining Mirror) we look at how Zimbabwe has gone from almost basket case to complete basket case, and how its neighbour, South Africa, is desperately trying to adapt to change, and how it has affected the mining industry.
In both countries, the junior mining sector will play a critical role in rebuilding fragile economies. The political and economic risks, however, have simply become too high for junior or mid-cap miners to invest. The junior mining sector will not flourish, and investors will stay away, as long as there is uncertainty about ideology, vision and legislation, and concerns about electricity, corruption and infrastructure.
Zimbabwe has been on a slippery road forever, but business in the country is feeling the pinch now more than ever. South Africa is grappling with immense problems in the aftermath of years of misrule and looting of state coffers. In both, change has come and gone, but things remain the same. Zimbabwe and South Africa have huge mining potential, but in both, corruption, greed and a lack of political will are holding back not only the mining industry, but development of the entire region.
Perhaps it is time to admit that mechanising historical mines is not worth the money or effort, but that building new mines from scratch, in which mechanisation and automation is part of the development from the start, is real progression and modernisation. The problem is that in both countries, politics has prevented exploration and the building of new mines.
The same applies to politics. The historic liberation movements in South Africa and Zimbabwe have failed dismally in becoming modern, progressive political parties and governments, and in the process their economies have suffered, and with it the mining industry. But it’s not too late for change. The question is: are the voters of Zimbabwe and South Africa ready to take the risk?