5 key takeaways from Mining Indaba 2023
By Simon Shear, Account Director
Turning systemic challenges into collaborative opportunities
The Investing in African Mining Indaba 2023, held in Cape Town, took place at a crossroads, for South Africa and for the African continent.
Admittedly, every conference gets hyped as an inflection point that will determine the path we collectively take – or fail to take. But in the current moment, the starkness of our choices seems – for once – incontrovertible.
At a global level, climate change poses an existential threat to humanity. And coming in the wake of COP27 – “Africa’s COP” – no one attending the world’s largest mining investment conference would have been in any doubt of the scale of the challenge or the need for urgent, coordinated action.
A mining conference against the backdrop of South Africa’s power grid crisis
In South Africa (the Indaba’s host country) there’s a more prosaic but equally critical challenge: keeping the lights on. For nearly two decades, Eskom, South Africa’s electricity utility, has implemented “load shedding”, scheduled power outages, to prop up a national power grid at breaking point.
For delegates who jetted into Cape Town, the buzz of the panel discussions would have been intensified by the hum of the generators burning diesel to keep the breakout rooms illuminated. The basic inability to supply a critical utility seeming all the more incongruous amid the conference venue’s awe-inspiring mountain views and city’s world-class cuisine.
Far from improving, the power crisis feels, to many South Africans like it is getting worse. Other African countries are no strangers to energy insecurity either; it is a critical market enablement issue in the continent. Investors have been remarkably patient, but to many hard-headed analysts, long-term investment – in South Africa specifically – now depends on swift action, or at least a credible roadmap for change.
Positivity and purposefulness – key takeaways from Mining Indaba 2023
And this is the background that framed many of the key discussions taking place at the 2023 Indaba. However, we should not make the mistake of thinking the event was a litany of doom and gloom. Indeed, many delegates emerged with a renewed sense of purpose: mining companies increasingly recognise the need to take the lead in developing the systems and infrastructure for sustainable investment and economic growth.
If one overarching theme emerged, it was how miners are turning systemic challenges into collaborative opportunities.
With that connecting thread in mind, let’s consider 5 key takeaways from Mining Indaba 2023:
1. Mining companies are building the infrastructure for tomorrow’s economy
South Africa is not the only country thinking hard about its future energy security. The transition to a green energy future is a policy priority and a leading investor concern across Africa and around the world.
International Council on Mining and Metals CEO Rohitesh Dhawan told Daily Maverick that there is scepticism about the mining industry’s commitment to decarbonising due to its past “woeful environmental record”. Nonetheless, Dhawan insists, “the climate crisis has triggered public and investor pressure on the industry to clean up its act, and it is often at the cutting edge of the technical innovation that decarbonisation efforts require.”
In many cases, innovation is also driven by sheer practical need. For instance, Pan African Resources’ Evander mine in Mpumalanga, South Africa, has heavily invested in solar power to end reliance on the faltering national grid. Equally encouraging is the enormous progress mines are making in remote locations, such as Barrick’s investment into green battery technology at their Kibali gold mine in the DRC.
These efforts are helping meet investors’ ESG mandates while also making production more efficient and, critically, helping catalyse renewable energy production in the regions where mines operate.
2. Africa needs to seize the green mining initiative
The global transition from fossil fuels towards net zero is an unprecedented logistical, political and economic challenge. To sustain it, miners will need to ramp up production of critical inputs like copper, lithium, platinum group metals and numerous rare earth materials.
Delegates at the Mining Indaba agree that surging demand is a tremendous opportunity for African economies. However, it’s an opportunity they will need to actively seize. In part, that means developing quality infrastructure across the continent and building partnerships that unlock sustainable opportunities.
Already, African countries with strong lithium reserves are looking ahead to meet the demand for electric vehicle battery production – but turning those ambitions into action will take planning and coordination.
3. Obligation is a two-way street
President Cyril Ramaphosa gave the keynote address at this year’s Mining Indaba, underscoring the central importance of mining to the South African economy.
He praised South African mine operators for the skill, experience and world-class operational ability, pointing out that “South Africa is home to some of the most experienced miners in the world, with unparalleled expertise, knowledge and capacity for innovation.”
At the same time, he insisted that while South Africa depends on mining to develop its economy, mining companies have a responsibility to the broader communities in which they operate.
“Just as there can be no development without mining,” President Ramaphosa said, “mining must be at the forefront of social development”.
The linkage between expertise and innovation, on the one hand, and social responsibility on the other, is notable. And mining companies, as large-scale employers that are constantly developing cutting-edge technology, and often operating in remote communities, are uniquely positioned to bring development more rapidly and effectively to underserved places and communities.
4. Investor confidence is South Africa is strong but fragile
As the name implies, the Investing in African Mining Indaba had a pan-African focus. But the South African economy held much of the spotlight.
Anglo American CEO Duncan Wanblad grabbed headlines at the Indaba for saying he is bullish on South Africa – with important caveats. From a policy and investment perspective, there is little ambiguity. Economic growth in South Africa depends on functional infrastructure, such as efficient rail, well-managed ports and, yes, a stable supply of electricity.
Wanblad reiterated his belief that partnerships between the mining industry and government – at both national and local level – will be key to developing robust and fit-for-purpose infrastructure.
However, these partnerships can only thrive with sufficient high-level support. As suggested by President Ramaphosa’s comments, the relationship between business and government is symbiotic. Mining companies have a pivotal role to play in South Africa’s recovery – but they need to regulatory support to operate effectively.
Recognising the need to reassure the global investment community, mining minister Gwede Mantashe insisted to Mining Indaba delegates that the South African government has a plan to address load shedding.
5. Good governance is good business
Compliance can be costly. Failing to meet best practice can be costlier. As US Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Jose Fernandez pointed out in his keynote comments at the Mining Indaba, “projects that do not account for ESG standards often incur increased direct and indirect costs, including from labour disputes, community protests, and adverse effects on the environment and human health.”
Similarly, the World Gold Council’s Responsible Gold Mining Principles create an important framework for how miners in their sector are working to align the expectations of consumers, investors and producers in ways that make adapting to changing conditions more practically achievable.
In an uncertain economic climate, getting all stakeholders on the same page and collaborating to drive positive change, becomes more important than ever. Mining Indaba has highlighted that many mining companies are already putting their commitments to work, recognizing their accountability as corporate citizens of the countries and communities that host them.