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CAPE TOWN, Feb 8 (Reuters) – Mining is a long-term game, but in southern Africa dramatic political changes have transformed the investment mood for the better in the space of a year.

Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe stepped down in 2017 after a combined 75 years in office, while the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as head of South Africa's ruling ANC heralds the looming end of President Jacob Zuma's scandal-ridden administration.

Industry leaders meeting in Cape Town for an annual mining conference said the mood was radically different from a year ago as rising commodity prices, economic recovery and political change help offset lingering challenges.

"We can see the positive signs already in South Africa. There is nothing better than the rand's strength to indicate what has happened to sentiment," said Phillip Barton, chief executive of diamond miner De Beers' South African operations.

The rand has gained about 5 percent against the dollar since Ramaphosa's election in December.

Underscoring the new confidence, almost 130 years after De Beers emerged from mines around the dusty South African town of Kimberley, the company is going back to its roots with a clutch of exploration permits to prospect for gem deposits there.

Rio Tinto has also hinted at expanding its African presence and this week said its board would consider new investment in infrastructure in South Africa.

Miner ministers

Politics, once the drawback, are becoming the region's drawcard.

"Zimbabwe has good geology, it has good people, and it looks like the political changes like South Africa's are moving in the right direction," said Neal Froneman, chief executive of precious metals producer Sibanye-Stillwater, which has assets in both countries.

Zimbabwe's new mining minister Winston Chitando, who has worked in the industry, hosted a three-hour breakfast at an exclusive waterfront hotel to court investors and will follow up with a mining conference back home at the end of the month.

Angola's new minerals and oil minister Diamantino Azevedo – who has a PhD in mining engineering – also wooed investors at a three-hour presentation on mining opportunities in Africa's No. 2 crude producer.

The changes could hardly be starker. In the past, Angolan and Zimbabwean ministers at the conference made almost no public bid to attract investors and were generally unapproachable, surrounded by surly handlers.

The ruling parties in both nations, the MPLA and ZANU-PF, are liberation movements that critics say were corrupted by power. The ANC now has a similar reputation.

Companies that have operated in Angola and Zimbabwe in the past lack fond memories, so a lot needs to be done.

"We operated there (Angola) and it was extremely difficult. It was soul-destroying and heartbreaking," said Petra Diamonds Chief Executive Johan Dippenaar.

But new Angolan President João Lourenço is seeking to win credibility with investors and draw a firm line between his administration and his predecessor's, which was accused of squandering...

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