Amplats’ Viljoen puts Sibanye-Stillwater’s Froneman on the spot

Natascha Viljoen, CEO, Anglo American Platinum

ONE of the best questions posed at last week’s platinum group metals (PGM) industry conference in Johannesburg came not from a journalist, but from Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) CEO Natascha Viljoen.

She put Neal Froneman, CEO of Sibanye-Stillwater on the spot in questions following his presentation at the conference, hosted by Bernard Swanepoel’s Joburg Indaba organisation. She asked: “How do you think industry collaboration plays a role in market and product development and what should we learn from the history of that collaboration?”

The thinly veiled reference was to Sibanye-Stillwater’s withdrawal from the World Platinum Investment Council (WPIC) in November 2019. Amplats, Impala Platinum (Implats) and other PGM producers help fund the council’s work which is to promote the use of platinum in investment including exchange traded funds.

Sibanye-Stillwater is also not a member of AP Ventures, an Amplats initiative which funds research and development of PGMs in hydrogen technology. Implats helps finance AP Ventures along with Sumitomo Corp., Mitsubishi Corp. and Equinor, an energy company.

Instead, Sibanye-Stillwater established its own fund, BioniCCube which it unveiled at the firm’s annual results presentation in March. Capitalised with 1.5% of adjusted EBITDA, equal to R1.7bn based on the group’s 2021 financial year, BioniCCube bought a stake in a French electric vehicle battery manufacturer.

Froneman said in response to Viljoen that his company wasn’t interested in taking part in ventures where the focus was lodged in an Eighties perspective. This was a criticism of the WPIC’s investment demand focus.

Said Froneman: “The market development initiatives of today were developed in the Eighties. They don’t, in my mind, take cognisance of today’s issues and that’s the reason we’re not part of it. We don’t disagree with market development, but the world has moved on and they have served their purpose.

“We should not duplicate efforts. Your venture fund (AP Ventures) is a great initiative, but we are looking at doing different things. We are willing to share our knowledge, but we have a different view of the world than in the Eighties”.

Froneman added, however that he was willing to cooperate with Amplats and other PGM producers in the field of market development. “We can talk more, but we see ourselves doing complementary things,” he said.

The unusual public quizzing of one CEO by another was music to the ears of Bernard Swanpoel, a former CEO himself from when he led Harmony Gold for 12 years until 2007. “It is important to keep the conversations going and not having these conversations in the background. So I really appreciate bringing this to the fora.”

‘I could not have scripted it better,” Swanepoel added, acknowledging that his superlative Joburg Indaba conferences thrives on making headlines.