Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

The new owners of the distressed Vantage Goldfields and its shuttered Lily and Barbrook mines are hoping to put tragedy behind them as they prepare to revive operations, with a view to one day becoming a "black Anglo American".

Fred Arendse, CEO of the Siyakhula Sonke Empowerment Corporation (the SSC Group), said although the task ahead would be challenging, he believed Vantage Goldfields offered a unique investment opportunity and was "on the brink" of unlocking value.

The mines in question are low-grade, but shallow, and produce gold at the lowest dollar cost per ounce in Africa. "This business is still a real, viable business," Arendse said.

His optimism is in contrast to the state of the industry in SA that continues to close shafts and cut jobs amid rising costs and low metal prices.

On Tuesday JSE-listed Gold Fields announced it would cut up to 1,560 jobs in a restructure of its only remaining South African asset, the loss-making South Deep.

Vantage Goldfields, which has no association with Gold Fields, was pushed into voluntary business rescue after an accident at Lily mine in 2016 that claimed three lives. In terms of the Companies Act, business rescue proceedings are initiated to help rehabilitate financially distressed firms.

The SSC Group, with the assistance of a R190m loan from the Industrial Development Corporation through its 100 black industrialists initiative, signed a closing agreement in May for its subsidiary, Flaming Silver, to purchase a 74% stake in Vantage Goldfields. The only thing outstanding is the department of mineral resources’ approval to transfer mining rights.

On February 5 2016, a rockfall incident claimed the lives of employees Pretty Nkambule, Yvonne Mnisi and Solomon Nyirenda, when the container they were working in fell, trapping them underground, where their bodies remain to date.

SSC’s budget to revive the mines is R250m, the bulk of which, R200m, will be spent at Lily. The plan is to sink a decline (a ramp rather than a shaft) at Lily. The first blast is planned for February 5 2019, the three-year anniversary of the accident.

An assessment on the fallen container can only be made when underground.

Gold production at Lily is only anticipated to start in 2020. Production at Barbrook will start before the end of 2018. First production will take the form of processing material from dumps and cash generated will go towards paying creditors.

Production is planned to increase from 32,500oz a year (in 2015) to in excess of 40,000oz a year by 2020.

Arendse said cost cutting is key for the company to be "lean and mean". Mechanising operations will be done wherever possible, he said. The reopening of the mines will also bring back jobs to the local economy. Before its closure the mines employed 900 people directly, but supported an estimated 10,000 people.

Arendse, a former head of transformation at Anglo Platinum, said he founded the SSC Group in 2005 "literally out of my garage" with a dream to create a black-owned company like Anglo American.

The company is invested in various companies along the mining value chain. Arendse said the company holds a majority interest in most of its investments and was involved in management. "We want to be in charge of our destiny."

Arendse holds a 5% stake in the SSC Group, while his family trust owns 95%.

Former Vantage Goldfields CEO Mike McChesney will retain an interest in the business through a vehicle with a 12% stake. He said he founded the business, near Barberton, after identifying the second-largest gold field in the country there and developed it into a model junior miner in SA.

"The reserves are relatively low grade, but because they are very low-cost mines and mechanised mines, they produce a very good [profit] margin."

Now with new order and prospective mining rights granted by the department of mineral resources, the exploration in the area was "huge", McChesney said.

"As the gold price increases, our ability to discover and build new mines is very good."

Seismic activity is not seen as a prevalent risk for the operations as they are shallow. Prior to the 2016 incident, the Lily mine had been fatality free.

steynl@businesslive.co.za

Please sign in or register to comment.