This article appeared in the Mercury on Tuesday, 27 May.
By Tony Carnie
Who are the big corporate players behind the controversial plan to blast open the rich anthracite coal deposits next to Africa’s oldest game reserve?
On the face of it, the main actor on stage is Ibutho Coal, a seemingly little-league company that has been granted mining rights by the Department of Mineral Resources, subject to an environmental impact assessment.
Ibutho plans to export large volumes of high-quality coal from the Imfolozi Game Reserve boundary to feed the industrial furnaces of China, India and Europe – yet it has no official financier and no export allocation rights to ship coal from the Richards Bay coal terminal.
Ibutho’s reluctance to answer queries about its history, capitalisation and future plans has raised eyebrows and fuelled speculation that there may be much larger corporate interests concealed in the shadows, waiting for the mining rights and other government approvals to be granted before they reveal themselves.
This speculation has been strengthened by the involvement of Joburg entrepreneurs Peter Gain and Tom Borman, who played a key role in consolidating the mining assets of the Optimum Coal black empowerment group.
The Swiss-based commodities giant Glencore International, headed by South African-born Ivan Glasenberg, swallowed Optimum two years ago, following a takeover deal that included ANC heavyweight Cyril Ramaphosa.
Soon after the R8.5 billion Glencore deal, Gain, Borman and Belgian-based investment banker Marc Ooms entered into a multimillion-rand shares-for-cash deal with the Joburg-based Metmar commodities trading group.
A key element of that deal was that Metmar would acquire a 55 percent stake in the Fuleni anthracite coal field on the border of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and the specially protected Imfolozi wilderness area. The 14 000ha Fuleni concession is said to contain between 37 and 318 million tons of anthracite, a high-quality, carbon-rich coal much in demand by steelmakers and other heavy industries.
But the June 2012 Metmar/Fuleni deal has collapsed, apparently. When The Mercury contacted Metmar to clarify the company’s involvement in the Imfolozi coal mining plan, spokesman Sean Naylor said: “The Metmar Group (including Metmar Investment Resources) does not hold any direct or indirect interests in the Fuleni anthracite project, or any of its associated companies.
“The deal you refer to, involving a 55 percent interest being transferred to Metmar in 2012, never came to fruition.”
Neither Ibutho nor Metmar have explained why the deal fell through.
Coincidentally, perhaps, Ibutho Coal’s letterhead still lists the company’s address as 25 Culross Road in Bryanston – the same address as the Metmar group. Tom Borman, one of the six directors of Ibutho Coal, is also a non-executive director of the Metmar group.
Apart from Borman and Peter Gain, the other four directors are Jan Johannes Bronkhorst, Menzi Egbert Gqweta, Pholwane Locksley Pege and Thembi Constance Myeni.
Borman and Bronkhorst are former senior employees of BHP Billiton and are now joint directors of several companies, including Beacon Rock Investment Services.
Gqweta owns a geoconsultancy firm, while Pege is a metallurgist who chairs the black empowerment Masa-a-Sele Investments group.
The only director with obvious connections to KwaZulu-Natal is Thembi Myeni, a former events organiser and entrepreneur who has since moved into various mining ventures – including a cement quarry near Empangeni.
Responding to queries, Glencore International’s head of business development in South Africa, Shaun Blankfield, said the company had no interests in Fuleni.
Nevertheless, Blankfield, Borman and Gain have previously served as joint directors of Wasat Investments, Rukbat Investments and Thuban Investments.
Company searches suggest Blankfield resigned these directorships in March 2012.
Jeremy Ridl, a Durban-based environmental attorney who has sent several queries to Ibutho Coal’s environmental consultants, argues that the public has a right to know who will benefit financially from the Fuleni coal deal. He insisted there should be full disclosure of all beneficiaries “including shareholders of the shareholders if they are corporate entities”. Ridl told The Mercury that he was convinced that there was “more to this than meets the eye”.
It was also important to safeguard the interests of theFuleni community whose interests were represented by the Ingonyama Trust Board.
“Given the obvious local and growing international opposition to the mining so close to the park, the obvious difficulties there will be with the exporting of the coal, tying up local markets, getting the various permissions, a little company (on the face of it) seems to be very confident in its ambitions.”
“Are they misguided or do they know things they are not telling us?” asked Ridl.
Responding to queries from The Mercury about its ownership structure, history, capitalisation and possible links to larger commodity trading groups, Ibutho spokeswoman Megan Hunter said: “Ibutho Coal supports the principles of fair and balanced reportage and the important role the media plays as the custodian of freedom of information flow?
“However, at this point we respectfully decline the opportunity to comment on the matters you have raised,” Hunter added.
The exploration and assessment processes were at an early stage and “public media comment on our part, at this initial stage, might compromise onward engagement processes with various important stakeholders”, Hunter said.
Ibutho, she said, remained committed to “meaningful, sincere engagement” and responsible business conduct.