Natascha Viljoen. Picture: SUPPLIED
Natascha Viljoen. Picture: SUPPLIED

Full marks to the board of Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) for picking Natascha Viljoen, an industry veteran with nearly 30 years’ experience, to take over from Chris Griffith, who is stepping down as CEO of the subsidiary of global mining giant Anglo American.

Viljoen’s appointment breaks the mould as she becomes the first woman to lead Amplats, which traces its roots to the discovery of the world’s largest platinum reserves in the Bushveld complex, North West, in the 1920s.

Sadly, it also shines an unforgiving spotlight on gender diversity on the JSE, the more than 200 constituents of which have a terrible track record regarding promotion of women to the top leadership structures.

A 2018 research report by 30% Club SA, a lobby group fighting for one-third representation of women at companies’ boards, shows that only 10% of the more than 200 JSE-listed companies have 50% female representation on their board of directors. Most of them however, it was found in the research, are following international trends in instituting policies regarding the recruitment and promotion of women at the same rate as men.

To gender activists, and this newspaper, it’s a step up in reversing the social injustices meted out to the most oppressed group in history. To shareholders it’s a signal their companies support a growing body of research that there is an unassailable business logic in putting more women into the top jobs.

It was found in research by French business school HEC Paris in 2019 for example that having greater gender diversity could benefit private equity firms, which have a reputation of being a male-dominated industry, raising their returns and reducing deal-making failure rates. It was found that private equity deals teams that included women produced 12% higher returns than deals led by all-male teams.

Viljoen’s appointment suggests Amplats will continue the path charted by the outgoing Griffith

Amplats is not exactly shooting the lights out on gender diversity — 17% of its board members are women, its latest annual report reads.  

Sure, social justice is not central to Viljoen’s key performance indicators, but one would hope she would use her position to partly promote gender diversity at the company, in which she is taking over as a confirmed insider after spending six years as the head of global processing at parent company Anglo American.

The metallurgical engineering graduate from the North-West University in Potchefstroom who worked at Lonmin as vice president of processing  and doubled as stakeholder relations manager after the 2012 police massacre of dozens of miners before joining Anglo American in 2014, has her roots firmly in mine shafts.

Viljoen’s appointment suggests Amplats will continue the path charted by the outgoing Griffith, who took over in 2012 when the company was on its knees with costs ballooning and after platinum prices had slumped from the 2008 high of just more than $2,000 an ounce.

That should be reassuring for shareholders who relish Amplats’s bumper profits and swelling war chest: in the year to end-December the company reported a 145% jump in profit to R18.6bn and a nearly six-fold increase in net cash to R17.3bn.

It is partly down to Griffith’s strategic overhaul of the company that included cutting thousands of jobs and closing unprofitable shafts, and that brought him into conflict with then mineral resources minister Susan Shabangu, who threatened to revoke the company’s mining permit.

A rally in lesser-known platinum group metals is also behind Amplats’s strong earnings expansion trend: since 2016 palladium has tripled and rhodium has risen 1,800% to $11,800 an ounce.

The outlook looks rosy for Viljoen, who inherits a company with long-life assets located in a complex with the largest share of the SA’s platinum group metals (PGMs) reserves, the Bushveld complex. Magalakwena, the world’s largest operational open-pit PGM mine, will produce PGMs for the next 100 years, while three other mines have lives exceeding 30 years.

For now the environment, internally and externally, supports her steps to ensure stability and continuity at the company, but it would be foolish to think the pendulum will not swing back. What is certain is that gender diversity and inclusion make companies more profitable and respected.

Correction: February 25 2020

This article incorrectly said Viljoen served as a mine manager at Lonmin. She held the position of vice-president of processing. To clarify, Magalakwena is a PGM mine.

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