Anglo American: The quiet giant of the SA economy faces a sunset – Barry D. Wood

At the zenith of its influence, Anglo American wielded unprecedented control over South Africa’s economy, comprising a staggering 25% of its GDP and dominating the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. From mining to finance, its reach was unparalleled, yet veiled behind understatement. Harry Oppenheimer’s quiet stewardship navigated delicate socio-political waters, fostering growth and tentative reforms. However, seismic shifts loomed with its relocation to London and strategic divestments, signalling an era’s end amidst a nation and corporation in flux.

Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.

By Barry D. Wood*

At the peak of its power, Anglo American utterly dominated South Africa’s economy. It alone accounted for 25% of South African GDP and 60% of Johannesburg Stock Exchange listings. Anglo was the world’s biggest gold producer, mined 90% of the world’s diamonds and employed one million people.

Well into the 1980s, Anglo’s headquarters at 44 Main Street in Johannesburg was a nerve centre of immense corporate power. In the spacious, high-ceiling lobby two side walls were taken up with rows of brass plaques, each bearing the name of an Anglo-affiliated company. Whether mining, banking, insurance, industry, transport, agriculture, education, media, politics, or vineyards – typically there was an Anglo connection.  

It was also expanding to become a major force in coal, platinum and copper. Its tentacles reached beyond southern Africa to Chile and Peru. Mining engineer Peter Major says there was a legitimate worry that Anglo would dominate mining worldwide.

Despite its power, Anglo was understated, never boisterous, never too public, loath to be in the headlines. That was Harry Oppenheimer’s way – let the colossus inherited from his father work quietly to build South Africa, promoting as much social change as it dared, careful not to openly antagonize the nationalist Afrikaner government.

Success

For several years the strategy succeeded. Oppenheimer could record in Anglo’s 1974 annual report that South Africa achieved 8.5% real GDP growth the previous year. There were good relations with neighbouring states, contacts were established with the exiled African National Congress, while at home some of the most onerous apartheid restrictions on black labour were being modified. Massive, expansive infrastructure projects – a coal port and rail line at Richards Bay, an iron ore mine in the Northern Cape with an 800 km electrified rail line to Saldanha – were underway.

Harry Oppenheimer retired in 1982, but the company continued to prosper under his successors. In Lusaka there was dialogue with the ANC. As former De Beers executive and Johannesburg author Kalim Rajab writes, “Anglo sought a negotiated revolution.” 

Moving Anglo’s share listing and headquarters from Joburg to London in 1999 portended far-reaching change. The Oppenheimer family began selling off its holdings. In 2007 it sold a third of its Anglo American holdings to Chinese billionaire Larry Yung. In 2011 it off-loaded its 40% holding in De Beers to Anglo for $5 billion. Economic empowerment deals resulted in black entrepreneurs gaining large stakes in Anglo-controlled Kumba and Amplats. Reduced to number eight in global mining, Anglo is number eight in gold but remains the world’s biggest platinum producer.

Uninvestable

Mining’s share of South Africa’s GDP has shrunk to 7.5% from 20% in 1980. And yet mining still accounts for 60% of exports. Export volumes are slowing because of inefficiency at the ports, theft of copper wiring that powers trains, a shortage of locomotives, political patronage and corruption. Mining engineer Major, an American but a long-time South African resident, says that since 2012 South Africa has been uninvestable. The ANC government can’t make up its mind, he says, whether it really wants foreign investment in mining.

Major says it is no surprise that BHP Billiton, in its hostile bid for Anglo, wants neither Kumba nor Amplats included in the deal. Michael Cardo, Harry Oppenheimer’s biographer, tells the Financial Times that the current Anglo drama has the feeling “of the sun setting on a corporate empire.”

Over the past decade under the ANC-led government, South Africa’s average annual growth rate has been under 2%. The 2023 figure was a pathetic one tenth of one percent. Investment in infrastructure – particularly mining – is stagnant. 

Sadly, both Anglo American and South Africa have for a long time been losing ground to the competition. Analysts say that trend is likely to continue.

Read also:

Barry D. Wood* is the Washington correspondent of RTHK, Hong Kong radio.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission