Amplats’ Restructuring: reflective of broader trends

by Jan 31, 2013All Articles

Anglo’s platinum operations are not “unprofitable”. Rather, they are not “profitable enough”.

amplatsPlans to restructure will jeopardize the income of 14 000 workers and more than 100 000 dependents. AMCUs call to nationalize in response reflects the growing consensus on the need for drastic redirection in the sector and the economy on which it has so much influence.

The tragedy engulfing the mining over the last 6 months is best understood as a symptom of the Minerals-Energy Complex (MEC). Ben Fine and ZavarehRustomjee coined the term to refer to the nexus of monopolistic firms, rooted in mining but spreading over finance and other sectors, that stood historically at the centre of the South African economy.It imparted a particular dynamic to the industrialization path ofthe country through its economic clout, linkages with other sectors and close relationship with the state. The concept is gaining increasing currency given its success in predicting recent patterns in South African political economy.

The post-apartheid economic dispensation, which reflected the evolving interests of the MEC, made it possible for major South African companies to become global and to ‘financialize’. The latter refers to a set of global trends encompassing the growing size and influence of financial markets and institutions that have manifested in South Africa in especially acute form over the last decades.

A few statistics illustrate this. Finance has been the fastest growing sector post-apartheid, burgeoning to over 20% of GDP in recent years despite the fact that over 40% of the population does not benefit from any financial services. By 2007, holdings of financial assets by commercial banks and monetary institutions had doubled from a few years earlier to R470 billion and similar trends were seen amongst households and the financial portfolios of non-financial corporations.

Another feature has been the entrenchment of shareholder value maximization as the guiding principle of corporate governance. Key researchers characterize the outcome of this as a shift from “retain and reinvest” to “downsize and distribute” as corporate managers, increasingly paid through share options, prioritize short-term profitability over growth and market capture, and reallocate value to bolstering share prices. In 2007 and 2008 Amplats paid out over R29 billion in dividends – more than the wage bill of the entire sector.

The net effect of financialization has been a slowdown in accumulation as firms shift to speculative returns over real investment, and the growing control of financial interests over economic and social policy. The MEC is also key to understanding the exodus of capital that has been leaving SAs shore’s illegally – averaging 12% of GDP over the 2000s, much of it through transfer pricing by globalized mining companies.

It is unlikely that Amplats is mothballing its Rustenburg shafts because they aren’t capable of generating any profit (they made between R62 and R92 million in the first half of 2012 before strikes). Rather, higher short-term profitability, that underpins the value of share prices, is available elsewhere and must trump all other considerations. In fact, Business Day reports that shareholders are urging managers to quit SA entirely, in deferenceto the share price of overseas listings of the firm.

The choice of shafts reveals another motive. Khuseleka and Khomananihave the highest concentration of AMCU members and wereat the centre of recent strike action. Amplats’ plans may be as much about disciplining labour as obeying any economic imperative.

The restructuring thus appears as a microcosm of the principal afflictions of the South African macroeconomy – financialized disinvestment and capital flight.

But this is not the first time we’ve seen this. Over the course of 2009 Amplats shed over 15 000 jobs with the closure of 3 shafts and cuts at head office. Those moves scarcely elicited a squeak from government, much less the National Union of Mineworkers. In light of this, one wonders if the vociferous criticism from a slate of high profile ANC members is more about clawing back political capital in the wake of Marikana, than any genuine outrage.

It also makes the widely criticized shock-tactic approach to publicizing the restructuring all the more surprising. There is a certain logic at work here, however. In the first place, by potentially overstating their plans and the severity of their problems, Amplats has gained room to negotiate to a position that seems more reasonable and ‘socially responsible’. This is also another area in which shareholder influence looms large. In the era of cannibalistic capitalism, ruthless CEOs that are prepared to pursue shareholder value at all costs are the beloved of the market – leading to a strong positive relation between job destruction and CEO remuneration.

To be certain – Amplats’ restructuring is driven by a long foretold crisis in the platinum industry related to rising costs and demand constriction following the European downturn and increasing market share of recycled platinum. The problems have been exacerbated by oversupply and chronic capital mismanagement by the sector’s private managers.

However, the way in which firms respond to the crisis is not determined by abstract economic laws but reflects institutional and political economic arrangements. Amplats intends to do everything possible to safeguard shareholders and impose the maximum penalty on workers.

As always there are alternatives. Platinum may be in the doldrums now but key analysts agree on a positive future for the sector in the longer run. A firm not beholden to short-term value may opt to retain shafts at lower profit rates with a long-term view to growth and market share – at the same time retaining skills, avoiding labour conflict and dispersing the costs across various stakeholders. (Or they could be made to do this by well-organized workers or an interventionist government). Other policy options, such as the creation of a commodity exchange market, could assist the ailing sector.

But these issues cannot be reduced to the governance structure of any one company. Financialization is now a structural feature of the South African economy that enforces adherence to a particular short-termist logic, not least through the threat of corporate takeover. Amplats’ managers are merely conforming to this.

This makes the governments rhetorical broadside against Amplats look all the more risible. The more so since, as Fine notes in a recent article, major macroeconomic policy programs – the NGP and NDP – fail outright to acknowledge, much less formulate a response to, financialization and capital flight.

The debate over nationalization needs to be viewed in this context. Alongside ramped up financial regulation, nationalization could form an important part of a strategy to curtail the influence of sections of capital that underpin financialization and MEC domination; and create the space for policy alternatives and a shift to wage-led growth. Realistically, is represents the only real chance of protecting workers and communities in the management of a declining mining sector that will see many more retrenchments and capital flight in years to come; and implement a strategic minerals-industrial policy that preserves resources for higher value-added activities. The platinum sector, containing over 80% of the worlds’ reserves, represents a particularly auspicious starting point for such a policy.

Unfortunately that seems an increasingly remote prospect in the wake of Mangaung, which saw the emergence of an ANC even more accommodative of big-business and not even willing to abide the term in policy debates. The election of Cyril Ramaphosa to the deputy presidency, and now the most vigorous and visible figure in the party, was roundly applauded by business but came as a kick in the back for workers whose colleagues suffered the brutal outcome of a police clampdown he advocated.

For now, it is those workers and their historic strike committees that are leading the fight for an alternative to Amplats’ restructuring, and the immense human cost it entails.

Niall Reddy is a researcher at the Alternative Information Development Centre.

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