Business Maverick

Business Maverick

Obituary: After the Marikana massacre, the writing was on the wall for Lonmin

Lonmin CEO Ben Magara during an interview on 17 May 2018 in Rustenburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Moeletsi Mabe)

Lonmin, which at one time was the world’s third-largest platinum producer, died on Friday, 7 June, at the age of 110. This script was not set in stone. The company faced many of the challenges that confronted its rivals, some of whom are now thriving. These included depressed prices, unyielding geology, and waves of social and labour unrest. In the end, the boardroom dug its own grave as a series of poor management decisions ultimately laid the company to rest.

Lonmin was initially christened in 1909 as the London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company Limited. Focused on mining and ranching, it was at one point an unprofitable flop, foreshadowing its eventual fate. “Tiny” Rowland, a corporate raider and maverick, would take up the reins and transform the group into a sprawling African business empire.

The former British prime minister Edward Heath once famously said that Rowland represented “an unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism”, but he was a successful face and one that was regarded as acceptable by many of the first wave of African leaders who lead their emergent nations from colonialism. On his death in 1998, Nelson Mandela hailed his “enormous contribution, not only to South Africa but the whole of Africa”.

Lonmin, the focused mining unit which emerged from the ashes of the bigger company in 1999, would outlive Rowland by just over two decades. Its primary listing was in London, but its assets and challenges were distinctly South African.

In 2004, newly appointed chief executive Brad Mills launched a mechanisation drive that ended in humiliating failure. Unions did not buy into it, and there was a dearth of skills needed to operate the machines and gadgets needed for mechanisation – an issue faced today by Gold Fields at its South Deep mine. The geology also proved to be an obstacle for mechanised methods, with a reef that was at times too narrow and too steep to accommodate machines. The initiative was eventually abandoned and the shafts were reconfigured for conventional mining at a price tag of R1.2 billion.

The company’s penchant for burning cash had been ignited, and things were generally downhill from that point.

In 2009, the company would go to shareholders for the first time to raise cash from a rights issue. That in itself was hardly a cause for alarm – it’s a common strategy for listed companies if they require additional cash for expansion and that sort of thing. But a trend had begun and shareholders would eventually lose patience.

In 2012, the excrement would hit the giant cooling systems used to regulate the temperature in the shafts. Lonmin, built in part like other mining companies from the sweat of cheap migrant labour provided by apartheid, would be caught in the vortex of rising worker resentment against the status quo. The militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) was its vanguard, dislodging the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as the dominant labour force on the platinum belt.

Lonmin was caught off guard by the challenge, and its own actions helped to fan the flames of social discontent. In July 2012, a senior manager assured me that he had dealt decisively with AMCU, which months before had exploded onto Impala Platinum’s world.

It was part of a press trip to Lonmin, and we were having drinks the night before a mine visit at Lonmin’s game farm on the platinum belt. “We have put the AMCU genie back in the bottle,” this manager told me. “You just have to engage with them.”

We all know how that worked out. A month later the Marikana Massacre took place, with police shooting dead 34 miners – many of them cold-bloodedly in the back – who were taking part in a violent wildcat strike against Lonmin. Management, which refused to meet with the strikers – what happened to engaging AMCU? – stirred the pot.

The writing was probably on the wall then for Lonmin – who wants to invest in a company linked to something known as the Marikana Massacre? In his monumental tome about inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Piketty opens Part I with the incident. That book has sold over 2.5 million copies.

In an era when shareholders are increasingly concerned about the so-called “ESGs” – environmental, social, and governance issues – Lonmin was found wanting in the wake of the slayings. A subsequent commission of inquiry into the episode found that Lonmin had failed miserably in a commitment to build 5,000 homes for its staff and villagers around its mining complex, erecting only three.

Even the Free State’s disastrous low-cost housing projects under Ace Magashule, outlined in detail in Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State, had better delivery records. In a 2017 working paper for Wits’ Society, Work and Development Institute, Gavin Capps and Stanley Malindi noted that Cyril Ramaphosa had direct responsibility for such projects as chairperson of Lonmin’s “transformation committee”.

Ramaphosa’s involvement at Lonmin was probably another management misstep, though it must have seemed a corporate coup at the time – bringing an ANC heavyweight into its empowerment fold. Indeed, Capps and Malindi make the case that Lonmin may have failed in its social obligations because of the costs of the transaction to get Ramaphosa’s empowerment vehicle Shanduka on board.

The Lonmin board had gambled heavily on securing Shanduka as its main BEE partner” through, among other things, financing the Shanduka loan with a $229-million rights issue that left Lonmin “dangerously exposed”. This exposure included platinum prices which in subsequent years would remain generally depressed.

Big capital would eventually leave Lonmin high and dry, with the likes of Glencore divesting its stake from the company. Ian Farmer, the company’s CEO at the time of Marikana, would step down soon after the shootings in the face of a serious illness. Zimbabwean national Ben Magara would take over, becoming the company’s affable public face and developing what appeared at times on the surface to be a reasonably good relationship with AMCU’s unyielding leader Joseph Mathunjwa.

Other union leaders disliked Magara intensely, seeing his efforts to woo AMCU as a mistake. AMCU certainly did not spare Lonmin from its historic five-month strike in 2014, which also hit Impala Platinum and Anglo American Platinum. But they remain standing. Amplats has since made a profitable pivot to mechanisation, while Impala is now seeing the fruits of restructuring efforts.

Lonmin had been reduced to the status of a penny stock in London, which exaggerated its share price movements. In its final phase, the company needed another massive injection of cash to remain, as Sibanye-Stillwater chief executive Neal Froneman recently told Business Maverick, “a going concern”.

While it had recently returned to an operating profit, it was still burning cash at a rate that was outpacing its generation. Sibanye, a Gold Fields spin-off which had already branched deeply into platinum, put together what amounted to a rescue package for Lonmin’s shareholders. In an all-share deal, Lonmin’s remaining shareholders have received shares in Sibanye, which is now the world’s top primary producer of platinum group metals. Lonmin is now delisted in London and Johannesburg.

Meanwhile, life goes on around Marikana. I visited the community several times over the years, the last time in November 2017, so I cannot say what has transpired since. But up until that point, it always seemed remarkably little had been done in the teeming, litter-strewn shanty-town with terrible roads, aside from the odd clinic being opened. The impression was that neither the ANC government nor Lonmin, had much of a vested interest in improving the lives of those who live there.

Lonmin is now gone and will, in all likelihood, be missed by no one. BM