Although minerals beneficiation – which the South African government is committed to – is a notoriously poor development vector, there are industrial benefits to be reaped from a strong mining industry.
The Institute of Race Relations’ (IRR) policy paper, Multipliers from Mining, shows that it is upstream development which should be the focus of policy.
Upstream development refers to the inputs into the mining process. These are not simply the obvious skills inputs involving geology and mining engineering but all the backward linkages from steel, explosives and timber as well as roads, railway lines, power supply and water. It also includes equipment used for exploration, mining and primary processing as well as the skills involved throughout the process.
What is the upstream industry worth? In 2017, for every two rand and ten cents worth of minerals mined, a further one rand was spent on upstream inputs. That translates to R300 billion in what, it must be remembered, was not a particularly good year for mining. If mining in South Africa were to boom once again, this multiplier would make a substantial contribution to growing the national economy and soaking up unemployment.
South Africa is still well placed to export mining equipment and specialist services, especially into other Southern African Development Community countries and West Africa. It has been conservatively estimated that this market is worth some US$4 billion a year. It is South Africa’s back yard, yet it is dominated by imports from more distant sources, especially the European Union.
In fact, if growth is to be export-driven, mining is the sector in which South Africa has a stand-out competitive advantage. A study by UCT economists eight years ago found that only in mining did South Africans hold a disproportionately large (for the size of the country) number of patents and that, moreover, many of these ‘were located at the global technology frontier’.