Business Maverick

MINING

Surface raids increase while Sibanye beats back underground crime

Surface raids increase while Sibanye beats back underground crime
From left: iStock | A Sibanye-Stillwater Thembelani and Khomanani platinum mines signpost in Rustenburg. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Illegal gold miners climb down a rope as they enter a disused gold mine in Soweto. (Photo: EPA / Kim Ludbrook)

The diversified miner has curtailed copper cable theft underground, but faced a surge of armed attacks on plants and personnel on the surface.

In the combustible South African business landscape, which is being engulfed in the flames of crime, a company can douse one veld fire only to have the sparks ignite another.

That is the situation confronting diversified miner Sibanye-Stillwater, which has introduced measures to curtail copper cable theft underground, but has faced a surge of armed attacks on plants and personnel on the surface.

Last year the group lost about R1-billion in production to cable theft at its South African platinum group metals (PGMs) mines.

In the first six months of this year, lost production stood at about R300-million, but most was in the first quarter. The company said in its recent results presentation that it had made “significant progress in addressing cable theft” during the second quarter.

Richard Stewart, Sibanye’s chief regional officer for southern Africa, told Daily Maverick that additional measures to address this and related security issues would cost R200-million this year. The investment is seen as worthwhile as it is stemming production losses.

One challenge is that thieves have been gaining access to the company’s active operations through tunnels and ventilation shafts connected to its disused operations.

“The criminals gain access through old infrastructure and then wind their way down to where we are currently working. This has been our real risk. So a lot of our focus has been to seal off our active workings from the old workings,” Stewart said.

“There have also been a lot of novel technologies which have been used to hide cables, so the cables are no longer exposed in many of the operations.

“A lot of the theft happened after blasting before workers re-entered into the mine. But now we’ve made that more difficult.”

Mines are emptied of staff during blasting and gangs use that opportunity to snatch the loot. Hiding cables includes a technique known as shotcrete, concealing them under a layer of concrete. You need a jackhammer to get to them, which is time-consuming.

“The window in which these guys operate, we have closed that window,” Stewart said.

But on the surface, things are heating up.

“Where we are seeing an increase in criminal activity at the moment is attacks on infrastructure, including plants, labs and substations — so on the surface,” Stewart said.

“It’s across the board, gold and PGMs, and I think it’s just indicative of general South African crime.”

The incidents have ranged from “two or three guys attacking transport depots when drivers are changing shifts, going after personal belongings” to a dozen or more heavily armed gunmen targeting a plant.

“The armed attacks have been thwarted in most cases,” Stewart said.

Sibanye has had a laser focus on crime and its CEO, Neal Froneman, is leading the crime and corruption initiative on behalf of business in partnership with the government, part of a drive that will also tackle the energy and transport challenges that are sapping the potential of South Africa’s economy to grow and create jobs. DM

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