Obituary: Peter Skeat, the tirelessly combative miner, and foe of Brett Kebble

Peter Skeat

PETER Skeat, the mercurial mining contractor who clashed with the late Brett Kebble, died last week at the age of 70.

Skeat’s career was as varied and unpredictably faulted as the mining properties he worked on. His fare was often the clapped-out mines of the central Witwatersrand basin. He started and departed from four companies, two of them listed, on each occasion falling out with colleagues or estranging investors.

But Skeat also scored significant successes, especially during the Eighties and Nineties in which he made a name for himself mining outcrop gold reefs at Durban Deep, Rand Leases and Village Main among others. He claimed to understand ‘big machines’ which took him into unlikely places. From Tanzania, he loaned (and eventually donated) one of his machines required by the United Nations in Rwanda to bury bodies left by the country’s horrific genocide.

Returning to South Africa, Skeat left contract mining for the big time after buying Afrikander Leases from AngloGold in 1997. It attracted the investment interest of Neal Froneman, a prominent mining entrepreneur in his own right.

The partnership soon soured after Froneman claimed to have uncovered corporate governance abuses. Skeat’s view was Froneman was forcing him out. It was a story that was to be repeated over the next twenty years.

Skeat ‘sold’ his stake in Aflease, but it was a classic case of pan to fire as the buyer was none other than Kebble, then in charge of JCI.

Kebble never paid the R52m owed for his Afrikander Lease stake and told Skeat when he came calling that “perception is reality” and he ought to forget about the money, especially if he valued his safety.

The dispute kickstarted three years of conflict between the two in which Skeat pursued Kebble through the courts. He eventually succeeded, but not before ignominy. At one point Kebble orchestrated Skeat’s arrest which saw him taken to court in leg irons.

Skeat later told newspapers that he sought a quiet life in business, feeling that his name was forever tainted. He said of international investors: “They don’t want to get involved with someone like me because of the Kebble mess. Do I like this situation? No, I don’t – but I cannot fight Google”.

Between 2008 and 2013 Skeat started and left three separate businesses beginning with the 2005 purchase of Ergo from Anglo American. Unfortunately, he partnered with Mintails, an Australian listed business led by chairman Bryan Frost who was fast running out of money. He brought in DRDGold as a minority shareholder to help support the business (Ergo remains a DRDGold flagship asset), but the writing was clearly on the wall. Mintails lost 95% of its value and Skeat bailed. “I stepped aside because I have had enough conflict in my life,” said Skeat when faced with criticism from Mintails investors.

Skeat turned up again in 2009 with a plan to relaunch the Agnes after buying the Barberton gold mine for R18m. The mine, which had struggled under the control of Mzi Khumalo’s African Pioneer Mines, was relaunched as Galaxy Gold, a company Skeat planned to list on the JSE.

The week before Galaxy’s listing in 2010, however a moratorium was placed on new initial public offerings in the wake of the Sishen and Imperial Crown Trading scandal. Galaxy shareholders were dismayed and three months later Skeat was asked to relinquish his executive duties.

From 2013, Skeat returned to the central Witwatersrand with a plan to resuscitate another gold mine long past its prime, Blyvooruitzicht – an operation he sought to mine for both its surface and – more ambitiously – underground riches for a total cost of $85m.

The Blyvoor strategy was with the assistance of veteran financier and asset manager, Peter Major who once said of Skeat: “There are so many stories it’s hard to know what to believe … but whatever else, it seems he can build and work anything”.

It’s fitting therefore that contrary to market expectations Blyvoor Gold is producing gold at less than $1,000/oz. According to the company, this is much more cost effective mining than many of the neighbouring underground mines on the Witwatersrand.

Skeat leaves behind his wife, former Miss South Africa Stephanie [née Reneicke], and two daughters.