In the old days of mining in South Africa, Anglo American was the revered giant. From those mighty lion-statue-defended doors of their downtown Johannesburg offices they ruled the South African mining industry. I vaguely recall they also controlled something like sixty percent or more of all the companies on the local stock exchange. They may still do for all I know. Now they seek to be the same dominating presence from Alaska to Zimbabwe.
My father worked for Union Corporation, now long disappeared into other mining entities. But big as Union Corporation was, we still shivered in awe of Anglo. They were know as the progressive ones. They even asked the government once if they could treat their Black employees nicely. That was courage in those days.
At university a friend took me to his father’s office in the Anglo building. His father was a civil engineer with Anglo. That was like approaching the inner sanctum.
As a post-graduate, my masters thesis was supervised by a fellow who became chief civil engineer for Anglo. I have not seen him since, although last year entertained his son and wife in Vancouver. Thus my instinct is that the people who work for Anglo are good people and fine engineers.
In the evenings after five-o’clock tea in the university residence common room, we would head up through the grand mansions of Parktown and run around the parks and past the house where the Oppenheimers lived. This clearly was power and luxury beyond our first imagination.
By then politics was rough. Some mornings a fellow student would simply not be there: the security police had picked him up over night for protesting apartheid. My girlfriend had a visit from the security police warning her to desist from church work in the local township least her father, a military man, were to find his career in jepardy. We secretly circulated and read banned books including Black Beauty and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And went to banned screenings of movies like Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner. None, incidently, risque, but considered a threat to white supremacy nevertheless.
And maybe it was a threat to white supremacy for the government changed, but by then we had left, for that is not a place or a way of life in which to bring up children or even to try to live comfortably with yourself if you are lucky enough to be able to go elsewhere. Only two of my old university friends are still in South Africa. The rest are scattered around Canada, the United States, and Australia.
This personal reverie is prompted by reports that Anglo American is dithering about continuing to develop a platinum mine in Zimbabwe.
Mining giant Anglo American has defended its controversial decision to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in a platinum mine in Zimbabwe, after being widely criticised for the plan. After being accused of defying international opinion by making the $400m (£202m) investment while the crisis in Zimbabwe keeps escalating, Anglo American claimed the mine would actually benefit the country’s population in the long term.
For as long as I can remember, Anglo American has mined in repressive places and has tried to use its mining and financial clout to improve the lot of the country’s dispossessed. I recall they were always at the forefront in South Africa of bold and brave calls for better treatment of the Blacks, for opening the economy to others, and to development to benefit the masses—and themselves of course.
Is their Zimbabawe venture just a fall back to a deeply ingrained corporate culture? Maybe if South Africa can be made to go better, so too one day can Zimbabwe. If the Afrikaners can eventually be made to toe the line of decency, can we do the same to Mugabe? And in the long run profit from mining?
There is no question that Zimbabwe never has been a land of democracy or decency. Those who built the famous ruins from which the country takes its name, were no doubt brutal overlords who scoured the land for gold to send to the east coast and up the trade routes. Chaka sent the Matabele fleeing into the southern part of the country and set the stage for past and current black-on-black violence. The whites came and fed the original four million to increase the population to forty million. So now from Mugabe and his supporters’ perspective if a few of the other tribe die or are killed, who cares. This is just a continuation of the struggle for power and possession at the death of others, not like us, that is Zimbabwe.
The question though is, is Anglo right or wrong in continuing to operate and plan to develop there? No doubt their hope is the passing of the Mugabes and the coming of a semblance of decency in government. Anglo has sweated it out successfully in the past, maybe they can do it again in this dark African place.
Anglo America under its Canadian leader, Cynthia Carrol, certainly is bold these days—or maybe it has not changed at all?. Consider both this Zimbabwe investment and its massive investment in an entirely different place: the Pebble Mine in Alaska. The investment in Alaska strikes me as a hearkening back to the same corporate culture that persisted through the bad days in South Africa and now the continued push in Zimbabwe. I am surely wrong, but it is tempting to speculate that in the minds of the corporate-culture gurus of Anglo, Alaska is just another dark place of people who have to be persuaded that mining is right for them and for their land if only they will let Anglo do it.
And for sure, Anglo is committed to doing the mining right—for as I have already said, I believe in the engineering ethics of Anglo’s engineers. Only problem is I have studied with them and know we are still learning. As this very piece proves.
I never have invested in Anglo and never will. It strikes me as too conflicted an organization. Still family bound, internationally muddled, alternatively hard-headed commercially, but with an inner core of instinct to social responsibility which may be right, but maybe a long time in comming.
I will follow the story of Anglo America in Zimbabwe and Alaska, for in both places they are defying conventional wisdom and prudence. In both places they are seeking to mine as a way to improve with the most noble sentiments. And in both places they are fighting forces stronger than them; but the people they are fighting have less time, less money, and less perspective. In both places we see again the presence of Anglo American at the center of the debates that will shape the world of mining for decades to come.