Mining is huge business in Africa, and in-house general counsels play a vital role in ensuring the deals and day to day business are all on track. There is thus great interest around the GC Forum which will again be run as part of the wider Investing in African Mining Indaba in Cape Town in early May.
Hermien Uys, general counsel and executive director at Vedanta Zinc International, is one of the speakers at the GC Forum. With 17 years of corporate-commercial advisory experience in the mining industry, including stints with Rio Tinto, De Beers and now Vedanta Zinc International, she certainly knows what it takes to work as a GC within a large global mining organisation.
When asked to describe her role as an in-house counsel in African mining while the world navigated the pandemic, she answered succinctly: “Trusted advisor!”
Uys says her career has been much more exhilarating than she expected when she first became an in-house GC. “I have been fortunate enough to have been part of strategic joint venture negotiations with governments in the DRC and Angola, refinancing a R2.5bn credit facility and a US$500m term loan with a consortium of 11 banks, the disposal of an iconic diamond mine, a tax dispute with a revenue authority as part of an acquisition where the seller was not subject to the local country’s tax net, and an international arbitration with a sovereign government where a shareholders’ agreement between parties had been disregarded,” she said.
Passionate about the contribution that the mining industry makes to broader society, Uys believes in-house counsel has a significant role to play in facilitating and driving ESG goals. “In-house legal teams should increasingly be involved in setting the strategic direction of sustainability and ESG within organisations, ensuring first class ESG practices are embedded through corporate governance and integrated into broader business operations.” she said.
Having worked across numerous jurisdictions in Africa, Uys has interacted with a wide variety of mining lawyers and believes there are some specific skills gaps which the community could look to improve on. Top of these is tech skills, including the ability to use digital tools and technology to drive efficiencies in the in-house legal function. She also believes it’s a problem that many mining GCs don’t have a business background and financial- or tax literacy. She said some lawyers also need to improve their ability to collaborate with a wide variety of stakeholders, interest groups, colleagues and peers.
And if there was one behaviour or practice she would have all private practice legal advisers be forced to drop overnight, what would it be? “The billable hour! Here’s to alternative fee arrangements!”
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