Speakers at the 2019 Mining Indaba know that a 3pm slot is a bum deal.           

That’s around the time that the post-lunch energy dip sets in. Some delegates can’t help but nod off while others, who might have overindulged at any of the many cocktail functions the night before, start to slip out.               

But President Cyril Ramaphosa doesn’t have this problem. Instead, the main auditorium was filled to capacity a good hour before he is scheduled to speak on Tuesday afternoon.               

It was a significant moment, partly because, even though the Investing in African Mining Indaba is the largest mining conference in the world and has taken place for the last 25-years, this is the first time a sitting SA president has addressed the event.               

Demand to hear him speak was so high, in fact, that there was a spill-over venue. And as a measure of Ramaphosa’s impact, those in that spill-over venue stood and clapped as they watched him on screen. Perhaps it’s just as well Jacob Zuma never spoke here — the odds of him getting that sort of reception were always likely to be vanishingly slim.               

But then, the business-friendly buffalo-loving statesman has always been a hit with investors. For good reason: under his leadership a new minister, Gwede Mantashe, was installed to temper an increasingly adversarial relationship between companies and government to deal with major regulatory stumbling blocks which had all but brought mining investment to a halt.               

However, in the past 11 months under Ramaphosa’s watch, the government has finalised a new mining charter (the subject of a legal battle under the previous presidency) which has been largely welcomed by the industry as a “workable” document. Also, the contentious MRPDA Amendment bill has been withdrawn and work on an oil and gas framework is moving speedily along.           

So, perhaps it wasn’t that surprising that speaking on Tuesday, Ramaphosa delivered a rousing speech which hit all the right notes.               

Reiterating government’s commitment to attracting investment and stimulating economic growth, Ramaphosa says the state has prioritised a predictable policy and regulatory environment. And the relationship between government and business is now on the mend. 

“We want to see you not in the courts, but in your boardrooms where we can talk and debate,” he said.

Of course, the biggest worry amongst all investors — not just those in the mining sector — has been the ogre of land expropriation without compensation. And even on this point, he made soothing noises.

“Our approach to this matter will enhance, rather than undermine property rights,” he said.               

Quite how he’d do that, Ramaphosa didn’t say. But then perhaps he was saving the nitty gritty for his state of the nation address on Thursday night. Investors will surely hope so — without an implementable plan, it is just comforting words.

Listen to Business Day deputy editor Jana Marais and mining and energies writer Lisa Steyn as they reflect on the highlights of the Indaba

He also addressed the issue of Eskom, which Anglo American CEO Mark Cutifani had earlier identified as the biggest risk for the mining sector.             

“Restoring and securing energy security for the country is an absolute imperative,” he said, promising a package of measures will be announced in the next few days — presumably, also during his state of the nation address.

Only towards the end did Ramaphosa throw the ball back to the mining companies themselves.               

Listing “10 Value Creating Principles for a more modern, successful and productive mining industry”, he called on the sector to amongst other things, pursue inclusive growth, partner with local governments, invest in housing, skills, health and safety; and to bring their workers into the shareholding structure of their businesses. In other words, ask not what your country can do for you …               

Stirring as his speech was, Ramaphosa remains first and foremost a politician who needs to drum up votes in an election year where the ruling party may well be punished at the polls for poor governance and rampant corruption in recent years.               

Interestingly, the dynamics on the mines are also affected by elections.             

According to Tebello Chabana, a senior executive at the Minerals Council SA, the industry doesn’t feel the impact of an election year in terms of regulation, but mining operations are often affected by an uptick in community unrest. Ordinary everyday issues in mining communities can become highly politicised at this time.           

“At a municipal and provincial level, even though it’s a national election, people stop making key decisions because we are going into election,” Chabana says.               

Warren Beech, partner and head of mining at law firm Hogan Lovells, says the upcoming election has caused investors to stall too.             

“There is a bit of caution, to wait and see if the ANC gets the support we think it’s going to get”, he says.               

Critically, investors are also watching the “Malema factor” says Beech, referring to the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, which has made large inroads at a number of mining-affected communities in SA.             

Beech says investors are preparing to spend, however, “to actually push the button to spend the money, I think we’ll only see that June, July. They are holding off to see the lie of the land,” he said.