There were high hopes for Minister Susan Shabangu in the early years of her appointment to the mineral resources portfolio.
She stood up to calls for nationalisation, committed to slashing lengthy mining licence adjudication procedures by introducing the South African Mineral Resources Administration System (Samrad) to process mining licences electronically, and promised to overhaul the country`s mining legislation. It augured well for Shabangu`s regulation of a sector that had missed the commodities boom, was battered by cost pressures and was experiencing flagging demand.
But this promise was not delivered on. The Samrad system is still causing many mining applicants headaches, while other African mining jurisdictions rapidly catch up to South Africa.
Transformation of the industry is still imperative, but the controversy surrounding the sorry saga of the Gold Fields black economic empowerment (BEE) deal, in which a stake in the company for ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete was increased from R2.2‑million to R28.6‑million, has not allayed fears that empowerment remains a tool for political jockeying and the enrichment of an elite few.
This year Shabangu`s department received a qualified audit, and it continues to struggle to recruit and retain technically skilled staff.
Nationalisation may be off the table but policy uncertainty still haunts the sector. This was aggravated by moves such as Shabangu`s threat to “review” Anglo American`s entire portfolio of mining rights after Anglo American Platinum announced it was considering restructuring its Rustenburg operations and retrenching thousands of workers.
The step has, for now, saved jobs as retrenchments will be roughly 7 000 rather than the 14 000 first planned. But there is no certainty that more will not come as the platinum sector battles with profitability and Shabangu`s position has left a bitter taste in industry`s mouth.
Although her department finally did produce the promised legislative amendments through the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill, it has been criticised for causing more harm than good if passed in its current form. It places enormous discretionary power in the hands of the minister, and proposals for a free-carry interest for the state (meaning the state will receive a stake in a new oil ventures), as well as BEE requirements in oil projects, could halt the development of an nascent local oil industry altogether.
The Marikana crisis, a perfect storm of failings by the government and the mining industry, cannot be laid at her feet. But she has not been seen to lead efforts to address problems in the industry. Indeed, this year has been marked instead by the growing trust deficit between the industry and the government.
The leadership of the framework agreement for a sustainable mining industry has fallen to Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, and the jury is still out on the issue of whether this entity will bring meaningful change to the sector.