HARARE/JOHANNESBURG, Sept 7 (Reuters) - A showdown looms between foreign mining companies in Zimbabwe and the government over its drive to force them to surrender 51 percent of their local equity stakes to black investors.
Zimbabwe said on Tuesday it could prosecute or cancel the mining licence of Zimplats , the local unit of Impala Platinum , the world’s second largest platinum producer, for failing to agree to comply with the policy.
But Harare said it had reached agreement with Rio Tinto’s Murowa mine and a deal was “imminent” on Mimosa.
On Tuesday Empowerment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere also said 45 mining companies had their local ownership plans approved or were working towards full compliance, while 51 firms had ignored a two-week deadline they had been given.
Here are some questions about what may come next:
COULD ZIMPLATS’ LOSE ITS LICENCE?
This is possible but may be pure brinkmanship. There is no money in Zimbabwe, public or private, which could be invested into the operation to keep it going and so such a move would effectively pull the plug on a key source of scarce foreign exchange and employment.
If it’s brinkmanship and the government is just trying to wring more concessions from Zimplats, then the two sides may suddenly reach a deal.
Canada’s Caledonia Mining Corporation for example said on Aug 19 that the empowerment minister had asked the minister of mines to cancel the operating licence of its Blanket Gold Mine in the company on the grounds that it was not complying with the ownership rules.
But it said on Aug 23 that the cancellation of its licence has been suspended.
If Zimplats was to be shut down, Implats could decide to completely leave the country, as the unit accounts for about 10 percent of group production and it might find the political environment too unwelcoming.
This would leave Aquarius high and dry with Mimosa even if a deal is clinched on the empowerment status of that mine as Implats is its 50/50 joint venture partner on the operation.
That would further pressure Aquarius, which has lost about 40 percent of its value since the Zimbabwean government announced the policy in March, as Mimosa accounts for around a quarter of its production and has huge potential for expansion.
This is very unclear and the government seems to be applying different rules to different companies, giving the impression of an ad-hoc policy agenda.
Caledonia said its plan that was accepted “will take into account the independently verified intrinsic value of the mineral resources, plant and equipment at the mine.”
This is quite different to a requirement of 51 percent equity, which Implats chief executive has said “cannot work.”
It remains unclear how Rio reached its deal and a company spokesman in London declined to comment.
John Robertson, an economic commentator in Zimbabwe, says Rio was ahead of the curve back in the 1970s and had set up employee trusts, which the government may have decided counts especially if they involve dividend payments.
WHAT‘S BEHIND THE MOVE?
Elections will likely take place next year and President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party needs funds quickly to help him fund his campaign as he tries to defeat unity government partner and rival Movement for Democratic Change in the poll.
Analysts also say that empowerment minister Kasukuwere is aware that there is a movement within ZANU-PF to overturn the legislation so he wants to get as much done as possible before that happens.
Additional reporting by Sue Thomas in London