Mining shock rocks Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has sacrificed one of its brightest hopes for economic recovery with its hardened approach on the takeover of foreign-held mines.

Mining grew by 47% last year, according to the Zimbabwe Chamber of Mines, and had been forecast to grow a further 44% in 2011. This, with a revival in small-scale agriculture, was the basis for optimistic forecasts by Finance Minister Tendai Biti of more than 9% economic growth earlier in March. Biti said growth could be as high as 15%, but only if there were “no major disruptions” to the economy this year.

If the radical empowerment regulations published last Friday cause a major freeze of new investment in mining, as is feared, those growth forecasts may have to be lowered.

While the empowerment law itself is not new, the regulations represent a toughening of President Robert Mugabe’s approach to black empowerment in mining.

Mines have 45 days in which to submit reports on how they plan to transfer 51% ownership to locals and have six months within which to implement the plans. Worryingly for the mines, there is no guarantee they will get full value for the stock they dispose of.

While Empowerment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere says a sovereign fund will be set up to fund the take­overs, there is doubt that the government—$7-billion in debt and unable to pay civil servants—can raise enough to fund the purchase of the shares. This raises fears that investors may be forced to give away half their shares for nothing.

‘Impractical indigenisation’
“Finding the sums needed to pay for 51% of the mining industry will be quite a challenge,” said economist John Robertson. “Allowing for the mines that are already in indigenous hands, half the value of the balance could easily come to more than a billion dollars. Apart from the proposed impractical indigenisation levy, nobody in government has offered a single suggestion about where a sum of that size might be found.”

The regulations came just as mining appeared to be recovering from years of decline. A series of investor conferences had raised foreign interest in Zimbabwean minerals, despite growing risk, while existing mines were announcing expansion plans.

Victor Gapare, the Chamber of Mines president, said his group had proposed that mines sell only 26% to locals because the industry needed huge capital to exploit Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth fully. The industry needed more than $5-billion of new investment to recover completely, he said.

Among the larger investors in Zimbabwean mines is Implats, which owns 87% of Zimplats, Zimbabwe’s largest platinum producer and one of its largest investors overall. Rio Tinto, through local unit RioZim, owns Murowa Diamond Mine, while Aquarius owns the Mimosa Diamond Mine. The 70 000 ounce-a-year Unki Mine, 100% owned by Anglo Platinum, is investing in expansion to raise output to 280 000 ounces by 2013. Zimplats is on a $500-million expansion drive and has plans to build a $300-million power station to feed its plant.

The government also appears to have broken previous promises to lower the 51% level in exchange for social investment and unused concessions. The effects of a slowdown in mining are likely to affect other large industries operating in Zimbabwe. Much Masunda, chairperson of the local unit of Lafarge, said last week the firm demand for cement his company had seen last year had been anchored by the growth in mining.

Companies such as Murray & Roberts (M&R) are also seen taking a knock. Shares in both Lafarge and M&R were down this week on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, which has been in decline since the regulations were announced.

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