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FronemanBusiness Times writes hailed as the saviour of South Africa's ageing and decrepit gold mining industry, and well regarded by investors for his ability to sweat the most meagre of assets, Neal Froneman now faces the challenge of rising fatalities at his Sibanye-Stillwater operations.

Last week, a seismic event trapped 13 miners, and eventually led to the death of seven at the company's Carletonville operations. The accident comes a few months after three workers died at other Sibanye operations, and 1,100 workers were trapped underground for more than 20 hours at its Beatrix operation in the Free State.

The deaths bring to 67 the number of fatalities at Sibanye since the mining house bought Gold Fields KDC and Beatrix gold mines some five years ago to create South Africa's biggest mining house - that employs 65,000 people.

There have been 413 mineworker deaths reported in South Africa in the past five years.

Former Anglo American CEO Cynthia Carroll famously fired Neville Nicolau as the head of the miner's platinum unit on the back of safety issues. Between 2008 and 2012, when he led Anglo American Platinum, there were 49 deaths.

Sibanye's best year for safety was 2015, when seven miners died. Over the past two years, the miner has regressed to double-digit figures. This year may be its worst yet, given the lives lost already.

Surface tension

At Sibanye's Driefontein operation, a great number of safety messages are on display, but one mineworker at Shaft 5 - who did not want to be named - told Business Times that safety measures were left at the surface. Underground was a different matter, the mineworker said.

Other mineworkers said the pressure put on them to make sure production targets are met is behind the increase in fatalities in recent years.

Adding further pressure, according to some, was the fact that Sibanye has undertaken a massive restructuring programme that centres on job cuts. The company has shrunk its workforce to 34,000 in its gold division in the face of low-ore grades and high operating costs.

Pressure to meet and maintain production targets with a reduced workforce has fed into safety lapses, the mineworkers said.

"There is a lot of pressure on supervisors, which comes from the top, either from the CEO or operational manager or someone else at the top, I don't know. And it all comes down to us," said a load operator at Shaft 4.

"At first it seemed like it was improving but actually it became even worse ... Gold Fields was not innocent in safety as well, but it was not this bad. It's the employees that are less and there is pressure from management to employees."

Sibanye spokesman James Wellsted said the company had "quite good safety procedures and policies in place", but they were only as good as the people applying them. Seismic events such as minor earthquakes had accounted for about 7% of the company's fatalities since 2013 to December last year, he said, while fall-of-ground fatalities were the biggest cause of death, at 37%.

Wellsted said there were behavioural issues that affected safety.

"The unions sit on our safety structures. If these issues are behavioural we are relying on unions as well to help implement the safety procedures so that workers don't cut corners."

Wellsted said the company constantly prioritised safety and compliance, but with the thousands of workers going underground "it's very difficult to monitor everybody and every area".

Makwe Masilela of Makwe Fund Managers said Sibanye's first-quarter production had been affected by safety stoppages and operational disruptions, but Froneman promised to maintain his production targets.

With the amount of debt that Sibanye has, the business cannot afford to not make money, so there could be pressure for production performance underground, which helps the company's revenues.

"Froneman wants to maintain and protect his reputation and that's not a bad thing, but there comes a point where you ask yourself, where is the line between production and safety?" Masilela said.

After his purchase of Gold Fields' less-regarded gold assets five years ago, Froneman has expanded Sibanye into platinum, buying some operations from Anglo Platinum and, in late 2016, a US platinum operation, Stillwater, for $2.2-billion.

The expansion has seen the company's debt climb from R25-billion to R23-billion now compared to a market cap of R20-billion. Repayment of that debt hasn't been aided by the rand's gain in strength over the past two years.

After its listing in 2013, Sibanye stood out as the star performer among South Africa's listed gold miners, rising 5.4%, against a gold mining index that has declined over 51%. However, since its peak in August 2016, the company shares have plunged about 80%.

Investors have been critical of the amount Sibanye spent on Stillwater. Froneman has worked hard to allay those concerns, especially with a proposed acquisition of troubled platinum miner Lonmin at the end of the year.

But, apart from addressing investor unease, Froneman and his team will have to pay greater attention to the safety concerns of the operations Sibanye already has.

This report by Lutho Mtongana originally appeared in Sunday Times Business Times of 13 May 2018


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