Resource nationalism takes hold in Southern Africa

ANC Youth League president Julius Malema leads thousands of party cadres on a 56km 'march against poverty' from Johannesburg to the capital Pretoria recently
IT WAS Zambia’s then-opposition Patriotic Front (PF) leader Michael Sata’s shots across the bows to Chinese miners during the 2006 presidential election that brought the issue of resource nationalism in Southern Africa into sharp focus. The following year, south of the Zambian border, Zimbabwe was to pass a law claiming majority equity for black locals in foreign-owned mines, among other businesses.

Further down south, a resurgent radicalism among the party’s youth was to assert its boisterous confidence with Jacob Zuma’s election as the new leader of South Africa’s ruling ANC party in December 2007. Four years later, President Zuma’s government stands buffeted by the powerful ANC Youth League and its firebrand leader Julius Malema’s demands to nationalise the country’s vast mining sector.

Back in Zambia, Sata is now the new tenant at State House after putting an unceremonious end to the 20-year reign of President Rupiah Banda’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) in elections held in September. His fiery nationalism drew the admiration and support of largely young and unemployed Zambians who feel left out of the mining boom that has made the country’s economy one of the best-performing in Africa.
Sata is sworn in as the new Zambian President, bringing an end to the MMD's 20-year rule

Chinese companies have become key players in Zambia’s economy with total investments by the end of 2010 topping $2bn, according to official Chinese government data. Hungry for raw materials to power its burgeoning economy, the Asian dragon has in recent years led the influx of foreign direct investment (FDI) in natural resources in Africa, contributing to the continent’s accelerated growth.

Africa’s GDP growth rate is approximately 5% a year and is forecast to continue at this pace or faster. African countries face the challenge of translating this resource boom into continued and sustainable economic growth, as well as ensuring that it benefits ordinary citizens and is consistent with national and regional development priorities.  

‘The resource nationalism trend appears to be gathering pace in Southern Africa,’ observed Peter Leon, a South African legal expert who co-chairs the International Bar Association’s Mining Law Committee. Efforts by countries to secure an equitable share of their natural resources have led to calls for outright nationalisation, indigenisation, or state control of strategic minerals.

In response, mining companies have no choice but to surrender to the sovereign right of resource-endowed countries to establish a stronger participation in their mineral industries. If they should pull out, other companies with much less to lose stand ready to take up their place. This is already happening in Zimbabwe, where foreign miners in the country are moving to comply with indigenisation regulations forcing them to cede at least 51% of their stock to local blacks.

According to the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC)’s World Risk Developments newsletter for September, resource nationalism is proving to be a clear and present risk for miners as ‘governments in a variety of countries are examining options to gain a greater share of the windfall profits flowing from strong commodity prices.’

Advisory and accountancy firm Ernst & Young (E&Y) also noted in a recent report that resource nationalism is the biggest threat facing the mining sector this year and next as governments seek to take advantage of higher commodity prices to try to restore fragile finances.

‘Because the mining and metals sector rebounded quickly from the global financial crisis, it became an early target to help restore treasury conditions,’ the firm said, adding that it had identified at least 25 countries in 2010/11 that had increased, or announced plans to increase, their government take via taxes or royalties. E&Y also observed a growing trend by governments to seek to increase local participation in investment projects.

Mick Davis, chief executive of the London Stock Exchange-listed mining company Xstrata lamented the pattern by many resource-rich countries to pursue retrospective changes to mining contracts as they seek to increase rents from their natural resources. “Changes in resource rent sharing between the owner of the resource and the beneficiator of that resource should be prospective not retrospective,’ he wrote in Xstrata’s halfyearly report for 2011.
Xstrata's chief executive, Mick Davis

‘Mining companies take on board significant financial, development, construction and then operational risk when they invest their capital in projects. It is not sound policy to rewrite the basis on which those investments were made after the risks have been borne and the investment implemented.’

But according to EFIC, apart from a handful of countries, most seem intent upon not carrying resource nationalism to the point where it ‘kills the goose that lays the golden eggs’. Most countries have shied away from nationalisation and seem content to increase taxes and royalties, or buy into resource ventures, or both. In some countries the promotion of resource nationalism is consistent with healthy private investment and production, EFIC said. But others, such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, could threaten profitability and force mine closures and therefore needed to be watched closely.

Ever touted as the paragon of stability and good corporate governance, Botswana is the highest ranked African mining country in this year’s Fraser Institute report. The E&Y survey also hailed the country as a good example of how African governments can balance collective and individual participation in mining. The diamond-rich country jointly owns Debswana, the world’s leading producer of diamonds by value, with De Beers in a successful public-private partnership.

Mozambique also belongs to the more cautious group of resource-endowed countries as it treads carefully towards a review of its mining laws. Dubbed the world’s last coal frontier on account of its massive coalfields in the northern Tete Province, the country reportedly favours increased royalties and taxes on new mines, a 10-20% stake in ‘strategic’ projects for the state mining firm, and licence cancellation for firms that fall behind with their agreed development schedule, but has not hinted plans for a windfall profits tax.

Mines Minister Esperanca Bias said back in July that the review may be completed by year-end and emphasised that ‘we will not do anything without discussing with the companies.’ Unlike other countries in the region, Mozambique has no local ownership or equity requirements for miners and it is unclear if that could be subject to change. Mining accounts for less than 5 percent of the former Portuguese colony’s economy despite large deposits of coal, tantalum, gold and other minerals.

In Zambia, however, the mining sector is in for some anxious times, at least in the short term, as Sata sets about reconciling the promises of his election manifesto with the realities of the Zambian economy. He has moved quickly to suspend theissuance of new metal export permits ahead of the release of new guidelines. Analysts say Sata has been rightly concerned about exporters misreporting the amount of ore leaving the country and has directed that all export payments would now have to be handled by the central bank. But more significantly for the country’s miners, the new government wants to increase its shareholding to at least 35% in all mining projects.

‘But that will depend on how well we negotiate with the mining firms,’ Zambia’s Mines Minister Wylbur Simuusa made sure to point out in an interview with Reuters in early October. He swiftly allayed fears of nationalisation, saying: ‘We just want to have more benefits from the mines. There is no cause for apprehension, because nothing will be done without consulting the mining companies.’

Arguments in favour of resource nationalism have noted how mining companies, with their disproportionate might in relation to poor African governments, compel them to accept skewed terms that undermine their own people’s interests. Zambia’s current tax collection system is a case in point.

‘We want to introduce a tax collection mechanism based on production or earnings. Under the current system, which is profit-based, some mines have been declaring losses for the last 10 years,’ Simuusa said.

Growing disillusionment with their failure to benefit from resource extraction in their countries has engendered more radical approaches by some of Southern Africa’s nationalist governments. Earlier this year Namibia announced that it intended to declare copper, coal, gold, uranium, and zinc as strategic minerals, and thus subject to ‘additional national protection’.
Namibia's Mines and Energy Minister Isak Katali

Mines and Energy Minister Isak Katali said the state-owned mining entity, Epangelo Mining Company Limited (Epangelo) would now enjoy exclusive exploration and mining rights to all these minerals and that interested investors would in future be required to partner with Epangelo. The move sent jitters up the spines of mining investors as far afield as London, The Namibian newspaper claimed. The country is currently working on new mining legislation to effect the indigenisation of control over its minerals.
Whereas Zimbabwe has openly played its hand on indigenisation, South Africa’s ANC party is agonising over whether or not to nationalise the country’s mines. Its decision-making organ, the National Working Committee, appointed a research team in February this year to investigate and report back in a year on the feasibility of mine nationalisation. ‘This decision has left a cloud of uncertainty over the industry for the next year as it awaits the recommendations of the ANC’s policy conference in June 2012, followed by its elective conference in December 2012,’ Leon observed, ‘All of this potentially increases the country's sovereign risk profile.’

Mining investors are not expected to stay away, whatever the outcome of the ANC’s policy debate. ‘The few high-quality ore reserves left untapped in the world are largely located in Africa. As such, companies are unlikely to leave, even in the face of higher taxes and tougher economic terms,’ Javier Blas, the Financial Times’ commodities editor, concluded.