SIBANYE-Stillwater CEO, Neal Froneman, has three words for the Association of Mineworkers & Construction Union (AMCU) ahead of platinum wage talks later this year: “We’re not intimidated.”
Froneman, who spoke at length at the annual Breakfast Indaba in Johannesburg, took the gloves off in his war of attrition with AMCU president, Joseph Mathunjwa, whom he accused of abusing both his members, as well as Sibanye-Stillwater shareholders.
AMCU has been trying to pressure Sibanye-Stillwater on a range of fronts, but has been left with a bloody nose after multiple setbacks. Its wage strike at Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold operations has dragged on for over four months, while an attempt to launch a secondary strike to back those demands was blocked earlier this month by a court.
Sibanye-Stillwater has also been given the all clear to forge ahead with the proposed restructuring of its Driefontein and Beatrix gold mines, in which up to 6,700 jobs could be affected, after AMCU sought an interdict to stop the process.
Froneman said on Wednesday Driefontein was nearing the end of its life. “To all intents and purposes, Driefontein is mined out”.
The strike was ultimately rooted in AMCU’s opposition to Sibanye-Stillwater’s takeover of Lonmin as it was triggered just after the competition authorities approved the merger, he said. “In our view, the strike has a bigger purpose. Because if it was just about gold wages it would have been non-sensical to take the position they took … We cannot have one stakeholder abusing shareholders and abusing another union.”
“Joseph calls all the shots. I don’t understand how an organisation that is supposedly democratically run operates like that,” Froneman said, adding Mathunjwa appeared to have a “political” agenda given his strident criticism of the ANC and government.
With relations tense ahead of platinum wage talks, Froneman signaled there were lines he would not cross. “Don’t try and force our hand with the threat of a strike because quite honestly we’ll take a strike. We’re not intimidated by those types of things,” he said.
“I’m going to do my best to avoid a strike, but I am also going to do my best to ensure that these historical above-inflation increases are avoided,” he said, noting that in its gold operations, Sibanye-Stillwater’s lowest-paid workers now earn 65% more than they did when the company was formed in 2013, then known as Sibanye Gold.
If the Lonmin deal as expected does finally go ahead, Froneman said he was not looking to grow further in the platinum group metal space because Sibanye-Stillwater is already one of the dominant players in the sector. He also reiterated his interest in battery metals and said it would take about two years before the company takes the plunge there, if the conditions are right.
“It will take about two years to develop the right strategy. If in two years we find there is actually no opportunities, then we’re not going to go into battery metals … With PGMs we found the opportunities and were able to execute them in a short space of time,” he said.
Providing some insight to his strategic outlook, Froneman said the recent Barrick-Newmont standoff was part of a “fad” to create huge gold producers and that it was best to take a “counter-cyclical” approach when asset prices are more favourable.
But as Sibanye-Stillwater expands its global footprint slowly, Froneman said the company might consider moving its primary listing elsewhere to access capital more efficiently and debt more cheaply, but did not say where that might be.