Anglo American Plc and Lonmin Plc, who employ 100,000 people in South Africa, say the government has deprived them of mine rights, threatening investment and job creation in the country’s biggest export industry.
The disputes over the rights, some of which are now in the hands of former government officials, add to investor concern that their investments in South Africa aren’t safe. The ruling African National Congress is preparing to discuss mine nationalization at a September congress.
“These could be the first indications of a worrying trend,” said Chris Melville, an analyst at London’s Menas Associates. “The key question is whether the government looks to resolve this uncertainty and close the loopholes or whether we begin to see politically connected individuals and companies systematically exploiting them.”
South Africa, which boasts the world’s biggest platinum and chrome deposits, is already struggling to attract foreign investment as laws to redress the inequalities of apartheid compel the sale of stakes in mines to black South Africans, increasing investment costs. Canada’s Fraser Institute, a research agency, ranks the country ahead of only the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe in terms of the ease of mining exploration investment in Africa.
The ANC’s youth wing and labor unions, the groups that propelled Jacob Zuma to the presidency last year, are calling for the country’s citizens to benefit more from mineral resources, valued by Citigroup Inc. at more than $2.5 trillion. At stake is investment in an industry that employs 491,000 people and accounts for 5.2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to Statistics South Africa.
Employing Black Managers
The disputes have arisen as companies renew mining rights to comply with laws that stipulate targets for black ownership, the employment of black managers and women, and the economic development of communities near their operations. They form part of legislation designed to make up for the use of cheap black labor during white rule in the country’s mining industry.
“It’s a piece of legislation that’s still being tested in application,” said Sandile Nogxina, director general of the government’s Department of Mineral Resources, in an interview. “I don’t believe it should frighten investors away as we have courts of law in the country to deal with disputes.”
Anglo and Lonmin say they have been wronged.
In March, the department awarded a fifth of the prospecting rights in London-based Anglo’s Sishen iron ore mine to Imperial Crown Trading, prompting a lawsuit from Anglo subsidiary, Kumba Iron Ore Ltd. Imperial’s biggest shareholder, Jagdish Parekh, has been involved in contract mining and uranium investment with Zuma’s son, Duduzane. The other five shareholders include ANC members and a former ANC employee.
While Pretoria-based Kumba said in an e-mail that “it is the only company that should be granted these rights,” Imperial maintains it has done nothing wrong. Jacinto Rocha, a former department official, said Kumba’s application was improperly submitted.
In May, London-based Lonmin lost the prospecting rights to some of the metals mined alongside platinum to a unit of HolGoun Group, led by a former Public Enterprises Ministry director general and Lonmin director, Sivi Gounden, his wife, Vanessa, and Miriam Sekati, an official in South Africa’s Security Ministry. Lonmin said the award of the rights was “wrong.” Vanessa Gounden said by e-mail the company had acted “with integrity and within the ambit of the law.”
No History in Mining
Both Imperial and HolGoun are closely held, partly black-owned, and don’t control any operating mines in South Africa.
The new holders aren’t well known because black South Africans were barred from investing during apartheid. The fact that some are followers of the ANC is irrelevant because many people belong to the party, said Nogxina of the government’s Department of Mineral Resources.
“South Africa is trying to promote the entry of historically disadvantaged people into the economy,” he said. “Of course, they will have no history in mining.”
Already the new owners are benefiting. Last week, Imperial agreed to sell its Sishen rights to ArcelorMittal South Africa Ltd., which previously lost the rights after failing to renew them on time, for 800 million rand ($110 million). At the same time ArcelorMittal South Africa agreed to sell a 9.08 billion rand stake to black investors including a group lead by Duduzane Zuma.
“Why should someone benefit to the tune of 800 million Rand because of the exploitation of an oversight?” said Peter Davey, head of mining research at London’s Ambrian Capital Plc. “That there are similar names that keep appearing is worrying.”
Lonmin was also temporarily banned from selling byproducts from all of its platinum mines after the department said it missed a deadline to renew some of its rights. Platinum group metals are mined from the same orebody as gold, nickel, chrome and copper.
Lonmin shares fell 5.1 percent in London on Aug. 6, the biggest decline in five weeks, in the first trading session after the announcement.
“It sends a terrible message to investors,” Peter Leon, chairman of the London-based International Bar Association’s Mining Law Committee, said from Johannesburg. It says “political connectivity trumps good commercial sense.”