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Lonmin mining massacre shocks investors with flashback to apartheid South Africa


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Lonmin mining massacre shocks investors with flashback to apartheid South Africa

Posted on 21 Oct 2013 by "the witness"

By Alistair Osborne, Business Editor

8:59PM BST 17 Aug 2012  

A protester licks his spear outside a platinum mine in Rustenburg. South African police opened fire  on thousands of striking miners armed with machetes and sticks at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine, leaving several bloodied corpses lying on the ground.

A protester licks his spear outside a platinum mine in Rustenburg. South African police opened fire on thousands of striking miners armed with machetes and sticks at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine, leaving at least 30 people dead Photo: REUTERS

Violent clashes at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine, brutally put down by the police, have left another 34 dead and raised the pressure on the cash-strapped company.

Rarely can a stock exchange announcement have been so shockingly overtaken by events.

On Thursday afternoon, platinum miner Lonmin updated the market on its strike-bound Marikana mining complex in Rustenburg, South Africa, the scene of a violent stand-off that had already claimed 10 lives.

“Relatively quiet” but “tense” was its take on the situation.

Within hours, another 34 people were dead – after the bloodiest security operation since the end of white rule. Armed police had opened up with automatic weapons on a group of striking miners, felled in their T-shirts and blankets.

The graphic images swiftly beamed around the world could hardly fail to reprise uncomfortable memories of racist South Africa. Quickly, Marikana was being mentioned in the same breath as Sharpeville, scene of 1960’s township massacre that killed more than 60.

“Bloodbath”, “Killing field” and “Mine slaughter” ran the headlines in the local press, as president Jacob Zuma cut short a visit to neighbouring Mozambique and a front page editorial in the Sowetan asked what had changed since Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president in 1994.

National Police Comissioner Riah Phiyega claimed self-defence, arguing that having tried “water canons, rubber bullets and stun grenades”, officers had no choice but to “utilise maximum force” to protect themselves from a “charging group... firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons”.

Whatever, the stakes cannot be higher. And not only for Lonmin, the company caught in the cross-fire that is now also without its South African-born chief executive Ian Farmer, who was hospitalised on Thursday with an unrelated illness. Any investor in South Africa must worry.

That’s because this is not only an industrial dispute, but a political one, played out in one of the dirtiest, most dangerous terrains possible: a platinum mine. It pitches the ruling African National Congress and its allies in the National Union of Mineworkers against an increasingly restive, impoverished electorate, whipped up in this instance by a far more militant and recruit-hungry union, Amcu – the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

As the Sowetan put it: “Africans are pitted against each other... fighting for a bigger slice of the mineral wealth of the country.” The risk is that the violence spreads beyond platinum to South Africa’s entire mining sector, home to half the world's top 20 mining companies and the fifth biggest in the world. It could even escalate to other industries.

Intelligence group Exclusive Analysis said: “The killing of Amcu’s members at Marikana and any political action against Amcu is likely to trigger retaliatory violence against NUM members and police at other platinum mines... Contagion risks will also increase for coal and iron ore miners.”

That helps explain why it is not only Lonmin’s shares, down 15pc since the first walkout on August 10, that are under pressure but those too of Anglo American. It owns 80pc of Anglo American Platinum, the world's biggest platinum miner with 40pc of the market. Anglo shares are down about 5pc.

Xstrata, with a 25pc stake in Lonmin, is hardly unaffected by the crisis either - not least if cash-strapped Lonmin needs a rights issue. And Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton both have major operations in South Africa – even if the latter’s chief executive has always balked at the risk of platinum mines.

Platinum is found in everything from a car’s catalytic converter to jewellery. But getting the stuff deep out of the ground is a nasty business, with the platinum mining causing most of Anglo’s worker fatalities – down from 45 in 2007 to 16 last year.

No-one takes bigger risks than the rock drillers, working at the rock face with a 25kg drill for shifts lasting eight hours. It was 3,000 of them, represented by Amcu, that downed tools on August 10, demanding their wages be tripled from the current Rand 4,000 (£305) a month. Clashes between the rival unions erupted, with many of the 10 early victims, including two policeman, hacked to death.

The warning signs were there from an earlier dispute at the Rustenburg mine of Lonmin’s larger rival Impala Platinum earlier this year, which left three dead.

On Thursday, Lonmin ordered the striking miners – from a workforce of 29,000 – to return to work by their next shift or face the sack.

But feelings are running high. As winch operator Makhosi Mbongane told the Associated Press. “They can beat us, kill us and kick and trample on us... We aren’t going back to work. If they employ other people they won’t be able to work either, we will stay here and kill them.”

As Jon Bergtheil, a mining analyst at Citi, points out: “Unlike with gold mines, where workers live on site and can be controlled by security, a lot of platinum miners are bussed to the mine. Their living conditions are poor. There’s an interplay between social griping and griping about work. It’s a potent mix and can be engineered for political purposes.”

That’s why few analysts expect a quick resolution after what Lonmin’s chief financial officer Simon Scott admitted on Friday was a “severe blow” to its efforts “to achieve effective and open labour relations”.

Alison Turner, an analyst at Panmure Gordon, said the killings made any “speedy” end to the conflict “increasingly difficult”.

That is a big concern for cash-strapped Lonmin, which warned on Thursday that the first six days of the strike meant it was already “unlikely” to meet its full-year target of “750,000 saleable ounces of platinum”. Turner now sees Lonmin’s ebitda falling from a forecast $181m to $138m this year, with net debt rising to $539m from $516m. That, she said, “moves net debt to ebitda to 3.9 times, uncomfortably close to the four times debt covenant”. It gets tested on September 30.

The upshot, according to analysts at Liberum Capital, is that Lonmin “probably needs a cash infusion of $1bn within the next year as it breaches its debt covenants”.

Such could be the financial cost of events that have already seen a far higher human cost.


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