New owner, new perspective for Marikana?

Sibanye-Stillwater’s newly initiated programme for the legacy and future of Marikana has not yet led to a comprehensive change, as the answers to our questions at the AGM at the end of May 2021 show.

by Tilman Massa, Ethical Shareholders Germany

After Sibanye-Stillwater acquired Lonmin in June 2019 and became one of the world’s largest platinum groups, the U.S.-South African company must also address the handling and legacy of Marikana.

In the Marikana massacre that occurred at Lonmin’s South African platinum mine on Aug. 16, 2012, 34 miners who were on strike for better working and living conditions were shot dead by police. Company officials at Lonmin were also partly responsible for this escalation, and especially for the deplorable working conditions and wages. After the massacre, Lonmin promised improvements, but nothing changed, especially with regard to the living conditions on site. Instead, civil society is still fighting for comprehensive information and clarification of compensation payments. Accordingly, there was great concern that with the disappearance of Lonmin, any corporate responsibility and commitment would also disappear.

Little more than the usual social promise of the mining industry

“Honor, engage, shape” – with this triad, Sibanye-Stillwater wants to accept the difficult legacy of Marikana. The “Marikana Renewal Program” launched in the spring specifically for this purpose and the associated website leave no doubt: Sibanye-Stillwater does not want to be accused of avoiding the issue of Marikana, that is, to be associated with the massacre and Lonmin’s negative image. It must have been clear to management that such attempts would have meant the opposite of an image boost.

Yet Sibanye-Stillwater has many of the same problems as Lonmin, especially regarding occupational health and safety. Time and again, hundreds of miners have to be rescued from mine shafts after collapses. In 2020 alone, Sibanye-Stillwater had to report 9 deaths.

So what exactly does the Marikana Renewal Program entail? To commemorate the victims of the massacre, Sibanye-Stillwater first set up a small memorial site with a memorial stone, at the main entrance to the mine. The widows and their children can take advantage of counseling and education services, and houses promised to them are finally to be completed. The company also wants to enter into a dialogue with the community to understand the problems on the ground and intends to invest in the community’s economic development to create jobs and prospects independent of mining. Mine operators typically believe that they are contributing to the economic development of local communities by their mere presence. Sibanye-Stillwater does not seem to be doing more than the obvious here either, merely promising to rely on local labor and on local small and medium-sized enterprises for purchasing or procurement.

Questions and answers at the shareholders’ meeting

At Sibanye-Stillwater’s annual general meeting on May 25, 2021, we wanted to know in more detail what has been done differently than under Lonmin. At the meeting, which was held virtually, we asked CEO Neal Froneman what progress and results from the “Marikana Renewal Program” might already be available.

“We have made great efforts to actually change the dialogue around Marikana,” Froneman summed up at the very beginning of his answer. “We have taken a very conscious decision in our Renewal Project to honor the past. We are not sweeping it under the carpet.”

It was apparent that he knows the importance of the issue and the past criticism of Lonmin; accordingly, he wanted to make a clear the differences to Lonmin. “We immediately acknowledged the 44 widows, and in fact one of the very first meetings I had when we took over Lonmin was a meeting with the widows,” Froneman continued. “We accelerated that process and those houses will effectively be completed by the end of this year.”

Regarding the ongoing legal proceedings, Froneman assured that he would support them, although Sibanye-Stillwater is not, of course, a judicial authority. “Part of honoring the past is also trying to ensure that justice is achieved.”

Apparently, he also seems to want more recognition for the actions that have been instigated: “Some of the stakeholders involved in Marikana probably would not want to notice some of the changes we’ are making, because it suits their agenda to constantly recognize the past.”

With regard to the promised, sustainable future perspective for Marikana, however, Froneman was not very specific: “The intention is to make sure that even when mining ceases, Marikana will be a different place than what it has been.”

What is remarkable is not so much the commitment to the profitable Marikana site, but rather the perspective beyond mining. But then Sibanye-Stillwater is also no longer responsible, at least future generations cannot (yet) assert any concrete, i.e. enforceable claims against Sibanye-Stillwater. However, it is worth taking a look at the existing commitments and obligations of Sibanye-Stillwater.

The mantra of eternal working off “some backlogs”

Voluntary social actions by companies are one thing, legally binding commitments related to the mine permit are another. Therefore, we also asked about the implementation of Social and Labour Plans (SLPs).

In South Africa, SLPs specify how mining companies must invest in the development and infrastructure of the communities in which they operate. This includes the establishment or improvement of schools, roads, housing or sanitation facilities. Once a company obtains a mining right, the SLP it submits becomes a legally binding document.

Sibanye-Stillwater had previously announced that it had identified the backlog as a legacy of Lonmin and now wanted to mine. “We agreed as part of the transaction to acquire SLP 2, and most of SLP 2 has been completed,” Froneman clarified at the shareholder meeting. They are now in the process of getting approval for SLP 3, he said.

In addition to the SLPs, Sibanye-Stillwater currently has another to-do list to work through. In January 2020, the mining group underwent a full Enhanced Together for Sustainability (eTfS) audit. This revealed four “major findings” and 29 “minor findings” that should now be addressed through a corrective action plan (CAP). In particular, BASF, one of the most important customers of platinum group metals from Sibanye-Stillwater, had initiated the audit and had previously told us at its own shareholders’ meeting that there would be some unfinished business in the process. So now we wanted to know firsthand how Sibanye-Stillwater is dealing with the findings of the recent audit.

Themba Nkosi, chief social performance officer (CSPO) at the group, assured us that they were busy with the corrective action plan. “We are actually making progress on some of the findings, particularly around fire safety and specifically setting up operations after the audit. There are actually some improvements.” Another meeting with BASF in the fall of 2021 has been scheduled to have the progress reviewed, he said. So far so unclear. At this point, it is probably worth looking back at Lonmin’s ongoing lip service: promises to promote the local economy are, in Lonmin’s case, primarily linked to the alleged embezzlement from a World Bank funding program earmarked for this purpose, without any significant progress in Marikana.

Bottom line: No future perspectives without local participation

After all, Sibanye-Stillwater has clearly acknowledged responsibility and acceptance of legacy issues from Lonmin, rather than denying it. The Marikana massacre, the victims and survivors are acknowledged. However, comprehensive change has not yet been achieved with this, at most it has been initiated. The future prospects discussed by Sibanye-Stillwater remain nebulous. The company would do well to develop this perspective further together with the people living in Marikana. The only tangible commitments left are to fulfill the measures of the Social and Labuor Plans (SLPs), which are legally binding anyway, and to remedy the deficiencies identified in external audits, especially in occupational safety. Compared with Lonmin, however, it would already be a step forward.