I HAVE spent the past few days at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town, the South African and African mining industry’s big shindig, which is a rather strange window through which to view the world. It is my third tour to the annual industry conference, which makes me a complete newbie, as many of the companies giving presentations and the journalists covering them have been attending for the past decade or more.
In some ways, the world of mining doesn’t change. There is a constant, grand parade of projects, news, projections and speculation over commodity prices. It is a full and bustling world.
But in some ways, every year seems to bring a new crisis. Last year it was nationalisation; this year it is the events that unfolded at Lonmin’s Marikana mine — its causes and its aftermath.
It is hard to know if the industry has reached some kind of notable inflection point, or whether the notion of inflection points is really rather meaningless.
In every successive year, there is an inflection point of some kind.
It is a bit like the stock market. At any particular moment, the market seems to be gripped by some compelling mania.
Yet the market is always gripped by some mania or another and, if that is the case, then it is hard to see if any particular mania constitutes some kind of truly fundamental shift, or whether it constitutes nothing more than shifting sands that will shift back again as soon as the wind changes direction.
Yet, if you look through the miasma, it’s possible to see some fundamental shifts.
A few of these shifts, I would tentatively suggest, are as follows:
First, the notion of fundamentally open and free markets is, in fact, taking root.
If you judged things by the way politicians speak, particularly in SA, it might be easy to make the opposite supposition.
Yet, the fact is that SA is an oddity in this respect. Trial and error all over Africa have developed the parameters of consensus over what works and what does not.
Occasionally, one or another country strikes out in a different direction and SA is on one of those limbs at the moment.
But you only have to see the mass of mining projects being started all over the continent to see that, to most countries, the benefits of mining are becoming apparent and that, generally speaking, they outweigh the negatives.
One of the most remarkable things I’ve seen at this year’s Mining Indaba is a map of the mines being opened in Mozambique, for example.
The north of the country used to be as well known as Mars.
Now, dozens of dots on the map are indicating where mines feature in places where, before, even humble dirt roads were few and far between.
In a way, just the number of people who attend the conference provides the main clue. Seven-and-a-half thousand people pay several thousand dollars each to attend the conference and a record number attended this year’s conference.
Second, there is a growing consensus about what mines can and can’t do. There simply isn’t a modern mining executive who doesn’t know his company is, in effect, in partnership with the government of the country concerned and the people around the mine, even if there isn’t a formal link — and often there is. The notion of the rough, tough mining executive is long gone.
But third, having said that, the evolution of the industry is simply incomplete.
There was a great unwitting illustration of this. One of the presenters said, without irony, that while he was having a steam bath, it occurred to him that this must be what mining at the rock face is like.
Right. Having a steam bath at a classy hotel after an exhausting first-class flight, from whence the bar is within easy reach, is comparable to being on the rock face.
Hmm. It is great that humans are capable of huge leaps of empathy of this kind.
• Cohen is contributing editor.