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With 2019 fast drawing to a close as I write this, I can’t help thinking that this past year has been an atrocious one for South Africa’s mining industry, with our gold mining sector in precipitous decline, the country’s image as a mining destination severely damaged, and very few greenfield mining projects underway or even in the pipeline. And, to cap it all, load shedding has once again reared its ugly head, impacting the whole country and, in particular, the mining industry.

Arthur Tassell commentIt’s at times like this that one is indebted to the optimists among us who point to the many positives of South Africa. One such person is Mark Cutifani, Anglo American’s Chief Executive, who is a great believer in South Africa and its potential. At Anglo American’s recent end-of-year media evening in Sandton, he argued that “South Africans don’t give themselves enough credit for achieving the bold transition from apartheid to a democratic, inclusive and fair society.”

He acknowledged that much remained to be done but said that it was “truly phenomenal that South Africa has built robust democratic institutions and expanded access to social services such as housing subsidies, public healthcare and education to millions of South Africans who were previously disadvantaged by apartheid.”

He told his audience that South Africa – despite perceptions to the contrary – was Anglo American’s best performing jurisdiction and added that it accounted for nearly half the company’s earnings.

Cutifani – who, of course, hails from Australia – also stressed the importance of mining to South Africa. “Mining matters,” he said. “It matters to the 58 million South Africans who benefit from the rich endowment this country has been blessed with – enabling the direct employment of half a million people and a further 4,5 million indirectly. Mining also matters because it is core to modern life. Our products are essential to almost every aspect of modern life. Through mining, we enable a cleaner and more electrified world.”

He added that once the bedrock of the South African economy, and now its flywheel, mining was one of the very few industries that truly shared the value it created with its stakeholders and shareholders.

Turning to relations between the mining sector and the government, Cutifani sounded a positive note: “We have come a long way from a time when public discussion on mining was mired in mistrust and finger wagging. In this regard, it is important to give credit to Minister Mantashe and his team at the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, who have brought a fresh perspective on the opportunities and challenges faced by the South African mining industry.

“We, of course, have our differences, and all of you here this evening know these well. These range from the debate about how we should approach what the lawyers call ‘the continuing consequences of previous empowerment transactions’ under the new Mining Charter to the need for South Africa to urgently revitalise crucial infrastructure. This applies especially to rail and port networks, and to bringing stability to Eskom so that the rich ore that sits beneath our feet can be exploited for the benefit of all South Africans, affordably and efficiently.”

Concluding his speech, he said that as South Africa journeyed into its next quarter-century, it was important to remember that the path of any society is always rooted in progress, not perfection. “An aphorism from Confucius, China’s most famous philosopher is appropriate: ‘Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.’ Yes, South Africa has innumerable challenges but it is also, to borrow from Confucius, a diamond – one that has immense potential to shine ever so brightly. It is up to us to make this potential real.”

While I’m not entirely convinced by Cutifani’s argument about South Africa being a great mining jurisdiction, his comments were a refreshing change from the commentary one normally hears about the country and certainly left me feeling more optimistic than I’ve been in a while, a feeling which I think was shared by many others who attended the event.

Arthur Tassell

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