JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Platinum markets have avoided an eruption that would have shaken them to the core with mine nationalization effectively killed as policy in South Africa, which sits on about 80 percent of the global supply of the precious metal.
But they should brace for aftershocks.
The world’s richest platinum veins lie along the political faultlines of South Africa and Zimbabwe, where income disparities, labor strife and political populism are fueling intense brands of resource nationalism.
“All platinum supply, bar bits and pieces, come from southern Africa. In almost any other mining sector you would be able to do cross-geography comparisons about political risks, security of tenure and labor relations,” said Nic Borain, an independent political analyst based in Cape Town ahead of the London Platinum Week gathering.
“But on platinum you are stuck in the area of the world where resource nationalism or the social demands on those mining companies are most intense,” he said.
Start with South Africa, where the mother of all risks - nationalization - has been dodged for now.
A mining study submitted to the ruling ANC rejected nationalization as an “unmitigated disaster” for Africa’s largest economy but proposed a 50 percent tax on profits.
Such a tax could prove hard on smaller producers in an industry where the two biggest, Anglo American Platinum (AMSJ.J) and Impala Platinum (IMPJ.J), between them account for around 65 percent of global production.
Even bigger producers may find it squeezes margins as they grapple with cost pressures on a range of fronts: sharply higher power costs, deeper shafts and annual wage increases that have typically reached double digits and exceeded inflation.
Into this mix just throw in labor militancy and stir.
The risks of having most of your metal in one country - and one with radical unions - was underscored earlier this year when an upstart union tried to muscle in on Implats’ Rustenburg operation, the world’s largest platinum mine.
The violence that erupted between the radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) cut global platinum supplies by 15 percent, pushing up the price and ultimately costing Implats 120,000 ounces in lost output.
There are now signs that inter-union rivalries are bubbling beneath the surface at world No. 3 producer LonMin (LONJ.J).
South Africa’s platinum mines are ripe for union militancy: there is a rich tradition of radicalism in the shafts and AMCU is linked to the black nationalist Pan Africanist Congress, which takes a dim view of white-controlled capital.
Inequalities remain wide, and unlike in the gold sector, most platinum miners are not in mine-controlled hostels but live in their communities, where activists can freely work.
North of the Limpopo River, neighboring Zimbabwe has the world’s second largest known platinum reserves and the government has its eyes firmly on a prize worth at least tens of billions of dollars.
Foreign miners there are being squeezed to yield 51 percent stakes in their local operations to black Zimbabweans, a policy the government has dubbed “indigenization” and says is needed to redress the racial imbalances of the colonial past.
Much of the detail remains muddied as the cash-strapped government does not have the capital to buy such stakes.
Many analysts see it as a populist and money-raising electoral ploy by President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF Party ahead of elections which may be held later this year.
“You got to understand that there is a high degree of electioneering by ZANU-PF,” said Tony Hawkins, a professor at the University of Zimbabwe’s Graduate School of Business.
As in South Africa, Hawkins does not see outright nationalization of assets. But miners there will have to contend with an intense brand of resource nationalism for some time.
“The issue of indigenization will be with us for a while,” he said.
“So we will see platinum mines playing for time. They will take the long term view that ‘we are gonna be here for a long time’ and hope that perhaps a new government will be more reasonable,” Hawkins added.
Additional reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe, editing by Veronica Brown and William Hardy