Community’s disruption of rich SA platinum mine exposes cost of appeasement

When South African democracy arrived in 1994, the country’s business community had a golden opportunity to create a lasting endowment. Instead, with very few exceptions it opted for expedience, following a process of appeasement by feeding shareholder resources into the loudest and supposedly most powerful mouths. Despite the damage this Black Elite Enrichment wrought, lessons have still not been absorbed. Instead of doing the hard work of really understanding issues, in practice corporates often employ a risk-averse, back-covering approach to thorny issues. Shanty-town creating mining companies are among the worst culprits, witness Amplats’ current travails at its most profitable mine. By their nature, open cast mines like Mogalakwena employ a fraction of the people required at deep level underground operations. But they have an equal impact on local perceptions, requiring even more sensitive management of “softer” issues. It is not abundantly clear that instead of prioritising such complexity, Amplats followed the usual Pontius Pilate approach of abdicating responsibility to the local traditional leader. It is now paying the price of a restive community with the power and incentive to force costly closures on the company’s crown jewel. If you thought education was expensive, try ignorance. – Alec Hogg    

By Ed Stoddard

MOKOPANE, South Africa, May 25 (Reuters) – Anglo American Platinum’s bid to appease a community near its most profitable South African mine may unravel, highlighting the challenges of managing flashpoints of social unrest while trying to shore up its balance sheet.

The world’s largest open-pit platinum mine, Mogalakwena was shut for two weeks last year when residents of the surrounding shanty towns rioted, protesting against the government’s failure to provide services and the mine’s failure to provide jobs.

A haul truck is seen at the Mogalakwena platinum mine in Mokopane, north-western part of South Africa , Limpopo province May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
A haul truck is seen at the Mogalakwena platinum mine in Mokopane, north-western part of South Africa, Limpopo province May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

In April, Amplats announced a deal to set up a 175 million rand ($11 million) community trust for the local Mapela tribe to kick-start development and investment in neglected villages.

The trust’s aim is “to improve the living conditions and quality of life of members of the Mapela Traditional Community”.

“It is the crown jewel in the portfolio and so managing risk and community relations around the asset are very important,” said Hanre Rossouw, fund manager at Investec Asset Management, which holds shares in Amplats and Anglo American .

But the gesture has been greeted with anger by some residents, who say the amount is too little and complain that while their traditional leader was consulted, communities were not.

Read also: Amplats losses widen, writes off $853m. Selling assets to stay in the game.

Standing in his two-room home, Joshua Lesete points to wall cracks he attributes to blasting at the Mogalakwena mine.

“I haven’t actually reaped any reward from being close to the mine,” Lesete, 23, an unemployed black South African, told Reuters.

“They decided for us how much they are willing to give us,” he said. “There is a very huge possibility of the community shutting the mine again. The relationship between the mine and the community is on very shaky ground.”

Community activists have instructed human rights lawyer Richard Spoor – who has spearheaded a landmark class action suit against gold producers seeking damages for miners who contracted the fatal lung disease silicosis – to challenge the settlement.

Spoor said he planned to file in court in June, objecting among other things to the composition of the trust, to be run by a board of seven trustees, with just two elected from the Mapela community.

“We wish to renegotiate the agreement to ensure good governance,” Spoor told Reuters.

Read also: Amplats targets mechanistion, sells R4.5b labour-intensive mines to Sibanye

The stakes are high. Highly-mechanised Mogalakwena is the most profitable asset in Amplats’ stable. Last year it accounted for about 16 percent of group output of 2.46 million ounces and was Amplats’ lowest cost mine, with a cash cost of 409 rand a milled tonne versus 751 rand for the whole group.

“If you look at the results for the first half of last year, it made all their money, all their cash flow. When times are tough it pretty much supports the entire group,” said Ian Woodley, a fund manager with Old Mutual, which has shares in Amplats and Anglo American.

The mine’s importance has grown as Amplats sells off its labour-intensive Rustenburg mines that have been hotbeds of labour unrest.

By contrast, the unrest in the communities around Mogalakwena is rooted in perceptions that the mineral wealth created has not generated wider prosperity.

“The community has continuously been excluded from benefits of the mine, and the fear is that this settlement is more of the same,” said Joanna Pickering of the University of Cape Town’s Land & Accountability Research Centre.


Such situations can put the company in a bind – if it talks to one community representative, others feel excluded.

Amplats says it has tried to be inclusive, but felt it had to go through traditional leader Kgabagare Langa, whose title is Kgoshi.

“When there is any money involved, all sorts of groups jump up and say they are the right guys,” Amplats Chief Executive Chris Griffith told Reuters.

“We work with the traditional authority and we try and make sure the authority works properly. We spent the last year of the process trying to force greater involvement,” he said.

The Kgoshi said there “has been adequate consultation” but was open to talks with those unhappy with the agreement.

“In view of the concerns raised by some community members, the Mapela leadership will reflect on the current system in place and see how we can improve,” he said.

The 175 million rand trust fund may look paltry, but Amplats – which has not paid a dividend since 2011 – is hardly flush after years of depressed prices, soaring costs and a bruising five-month strike in 2014.

“They are sitting on 12.8 billion rand of net debt and only made over 175 million rand in earnings once in the last four years,” noted Old Mutual’s Woodley.


Mogalakwena also highlights challenges confronting companies switching from conventional to mechanised mines – Amplats’ stated strategy. Removing a large, unruly labour force does not erase social problems.

It can create new flashpoints as mechanised mining requires a smaller, skilled workforce – so there are fewer jobs for swelling and impoverished communities.

The Mapela communities are home to around 300,000 people but Mogalakwena only employs 2,864.

Outside Mogalakwena last week, 150 people waited under a mild autumn sun, hoping for a job.

“I come every Monday to Friday. But there is no work. They want a qualification but we don’t have the qualifications,” said Selphy Sibambo, a 31-year-old single mother.

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