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As SA celebrates 30 years of democracy and on the eve of the May 29 general election, former SA mining companies are involved in a potential tussle arising from the unsolicited offer by BHP for Anglo American.

Anglo was SA born and bred before moving its headquarters and primary listing to London in 1999, while BHP was created through a merger between Australia’s BHP and SA-owned Billiton two decades ago. The “family silver” went to Perth, leaving Johannesburg as a “regional office”. It is in this sense that one empathises with statements attributed to mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe that SA has nothing to show for the take-over of Billiton.

Postapartheid SA was founded on business support for the development agenda of the democratic state. The dire reality at the time was that apartheid had bankrupted the national coffers. The soon-to-be governing elite acquiesced to big business’s wish for the removal of international barriers that had been put in place to counter the disinvestment campaign against apartheid.

This was accompanied by open and closed economic coalitions between the new political elite and business. Added were the former’s ignorance about governance, its misreading of the changed global order and the effect on the global economy and national economies of developing countries such as SA.

As soon as the restrictions had been lifted, SA mining assets exited, giving ownership of these companies to foreign shareholders and taking domicile and listing in foreign markets. That their investments obtained their value through countless deaths, injury, poor health and broken families of black mineworkers from SA’s hinterlands, the protectorates, Malawi and Mozambique seemingly meant nothing.

Writing in the issue of Green Left Weekly in 2001, Norm Dixon said of the BHP-Billiton merger: “None of the capitalist ‘market analysts’ who have churned out thousands of words on the merger thought it necessary to point out that Billiton’s accumulated capital is the product of decades of collaboration with the racist apartheid system in SA.”

Lends power

Thirty years on, instead of celebrating the mining industry’s global footprint steadying the country’s economy through the present global economic turmoil, there is the looming possibility of Anglo American being lost to SA. Hardly 10 years into democratic governance, Anglo’s primary listing was moved from the JSE to the London Stock Exchange; talk about a knock to the confidence of a new country and its economy.

The company is now only marginally in SA, but its heritage and legacy embrace the brutal oppression of apartheid and the liberation of our country. After all, it has spawned a few of postapartheid’s black mining companies and moguls. It might sometimes speak from both sides of its mouth, but its presence as a component of the SA market lends influence and power to the economy.

This influence and power were primarily honed on the bloodied ground of the country. Its continued presence in SA, delivering on the various initiatives and projects it has committed to, is a boost to the economy. This is whether one refers to the world’s first hydrogen-powered truck, launched in Mogalakwena, Limpopo, or the new employee share ownership scheme initiative recently unveiled at Kumba and much-anticipated investment in renewable energy projects to support SA’s objective of ending energy poverty, simultaneously contributing to a low-carbon economy.


The Anglo American 2023 integrated annual report shows that compared with its other global assets the SA operations enjoy relative advantage in terms of the number of employees and wages and benefits, local procurement, and royalties and taxes. Commenting on the affinity between SA mining and Anglo, a past CEO once suggested that there is a need to reimagine mining and the partnership between the industry and the state.      

Against this backdrop it is unthinkable that any reasonable South African with an interest in the country’s economy and future development would be excited by BHP’s bid for Anglo. Of even greater concern, considering that it is a condition of the bid that Anglo’s diamond, platinum and iron ore assets are jettisoned, is what impact it will have on the economy in the context of an already depressed global economic environment.

Labour absent

It is suggested in the 2024 World Bank Global Economic Prospects Report that the global economy is set for its worst five-year performance in 30 years. Therefore, as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) proposes, in this climate the private sector has an opportunity to accelerate investment in growth and development. The imperative is therefore to not give in to disinvestment, as the potential BHP bid threatens. 

A sad feature of the discussion of the bid is the absence of the voice of organised labour, primarily the National Union of Mineworkers. Trade unions, especially Cosatu, have a vested interest in this matter. Beside making their voice heard in the Anglo boardroom, they can surely count on solidarity from the likes of the UK’s Trades Union Congress and international Global Union to help ensure the face of the SA mineworker is visible in those international capitals when shareholders meet. We were able to achieve this when companies such as Goldfields wanted to exit the JSE. 

Despite the bumps and missteps over the past 30 years, right from inception the relationship between government and business in SA was based on good faith, a partnership to support the developmental agenda. Like many silent voices of this country, I still secretly harbour the wish that Anglo could return its primary listing to the JSE. Old Mutual made a return, so there is some room for hope.

Anglo is integral to the heritage of SA. It is part of this country’s tapestry, bad and good. It is only those who are both ignorant and careless of our heritage who would wish it away. Of course, we should not forget greed and profit maximisation, without social licence, which could make some ignore this heritage.

These factors suggest that the SA state should use the soft power it has to reach Anglo American’s shareholders, in SA and abroad, to make them realise that it is an important asset and investment to our economy and its people.

Perhaps this could be an opportunity for another set of new overt and covert economic coalitions 30 years into democratic governance, with the aim of a genuine developmental economy for the many, not a few. 

• Lekorotsoana is chief of staff at the mineral resources & energy ministry. He writes in his personal capacity.

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