Anglo's heart not in SA, says Agarwal
With President Cyril Ramaphosa in attendance, Anglo American's largest shareholder accused the mining giant of being unduly pessimistic about SA.
"Anglo, and I think I can be very open with you, has no heart to develop SA," said Anil Agarwal, who has a 21% stake in the global miner that was founded in Johannesburg 102 years ago.
Agarwal is the chair and also largest shareholder of resources group Vedanta. He was speaking after he and Ramaphosa opened the Gamsberg mine, near Aggeneys in the Northern Cape this week - an asset Vedanta bought from Anglo eight years ago.
This is the latest barb from the Indian billionaire who amassed his Anglo stake in the past two years, but is not on the company's board. His public criticism of the group has often left investors puzzled as to his intentions.
"This asset, they literally threw away," he said, referring to Gamsberg, which had for long been one of the world's richest undeveloped zinc assets.
Anglo maintains that it is investing heavily in SA, pointing to $6bn (more than R70bn) committed over the next five years.
"SA is deep in Anglo American's DNA and our commitment to investing in SA's future is clear," the company said.
But Agarwal is not convinced.
He said he had had frank discussions with Anglo about its investment plans, advising the company that instead of allocating billions of dollars to mines in South America, it should stick closer to home.
"You will get a better return if you invest in Africa, if you invest in SA," he said, adding that he had told Anglo that Latin America was "so risky" and SA was "a sure shot".
Anglo's former CEO, Cynthia Carroll, was tasked with diversifying the Ernest Oppenheimer-founded miner away from its historical roots in SA. One of her biggest adventures outside the country was an investment in Brazilian iron ore operation Minas Rio.
The mine has cost Anglo at least $13bn to buy and build. It is a purchase that has proved the most controversial in its stable of assets - it has been more expensive and operations have been delayed, with analysts long regarding it as a bad investment.
Carroll ran Anglo for five years, between 2007 and 2012.
Vedanta has piled $400m (more than R5bn) into developing Gamsberg to produce 4Mt of zinc ore a year. It announced earlier this year that it would spend a further R5bn to double capacity.
The Vedanta group, founded in India and listed in London in 2003, is now also assessing the feasibility of building a zinc smelter and refinery.
But Agarwal poured cold water on suggestions that he had bigger plans for Anglo - say a takeover - with his stake.
"Not at all, not at all. What could be bigger than 21%?" he told reporters.
His role is more that of an activist investor.
"I'm only looking at how do we do better business," he said.
And Agarwal was not the only one to take a jab at Anglo. Ramaphosa, a former mining trade union leader who toured the mine before making a speech, also weighed in.
"Anglo had left [it] to lie fallow for so many years," Ramaphosa said about Gamsberg.
Anglo acquired Gamsberg in 1998 and at the time spoke of investing R4bn to develop it. But it sold its zinc assets to Vedanta in 2011 after two years earlier embarking on a strategy to focus on commodities such as platinum-group metals, iron ore and coal.
Vedanta in 2014 undertook to get Gamsberg operating within five years. Now the mine is in production and ore is being trucked by road to Saldanha Bay for export.
Like most industrial metals, zinc's price is cyclical. Zinc is used to galvanise other metals such as iron to prevent rusting.
When manufacturing is robust and trade is zinging, zinc is in demand. The metal's prices rallied in 2017, hitting a 10-year high of $3,600 early in 2018. But it has since declined sharply to $2,793.50.
But Agarwal is bullish in the long term. He believes the arid part of the Northern Cape where his company is mining zinc could morph into a city of a million people. The Black Mountain mine, which Vedanta also operates, is next door.
The town of Aggeneys nearby has a population of only a few thousand people.
And for Vedanta's grand plans of a zinc smelter and refinery to take shape, it would need rail infrastructure, possibly a special economic zone and other industries to off-take the tons of sulphuric acid it would be producing.
Agarwal is not worried and he speaks highly of SA's public sector.
"I got 17 licences in six months' time and I didn't have to take anyone to dinner," Agarwal said.