Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

Much more at stake in Anglo American-BHP debate

Anglo American plans to get rid of its South African operation and sell the rest to NHP, but we will be losing a champion institution.

There is much more at stake in the Anglo American-BHP debate than what is immediately visible, says an expert.

Taddy Blecher, CEO of the Maharishi Institute, a leadership development organisation says what is missing is a reflection on what Anglo American represents to South African society.

“What is at stake relates to the very soul and purpose of these individual companies and their starkly contrasting approaches to how they do business,” Blecher adds.

He says there have been many views addressing a range of issues related to BHP’s proposed takeover of Anglo American and many reflected on commercial considerations and the views of shareholders and government.

“Throughout the history of South Africa and even today, numerous books, documentaries and plays have been written about Anglo American. Underscoring its permanence as a feature in transforming South Africa for the better for over a century.”

Blecher says Anglo American’s multifaceted history and legacy are of course contested.

No one could ever argue for the merits of the hostel system, or the migrant-labour system and its harms.

But in the same vein, its role in industrialising Southern Africa, while contributing immensely to South Africa’s social development, has uplifted the lives of multiple millions of South Africans, and can hardly be ignored.

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Anglo American leadership commitment to what is right

He points out that Anglo American’s leadership consistently, and in an unbroken fashion, always committed to doing what was right, particularly when it was unfashionable to do so.

“For example, the company’s mines rapidly became the most unionised in South Africa at a time when this was not popular in the mining industry.”

For a company like Anglo American, the idea of “stakeholder capitalism” as we now know was always commonplace, Bloecher says.

Anglo American’s founder Ernest Oppenheimer already said in 1950 that the aims of the Group have been – and they still remain – to earn profits. But to earn them in such a way as to make a real and permanent contribution to the well-being of the people and the development of Southern Africa.

“Our organisation alone, which has directly educated and placed formerly unemployed individuals, earning them and their families in excess of R59 billion combined, is but a small part of the millions of lives in similar ways that Anglo American has improved.”

Herein, he says, lies the proverbial secret sauce: this is a company that has always, for better or for worse, been attuned to the idea that a company is not a plaything of a limited group of people.

It exists to generate and deliver value for shareholders, but this is not the antithesis of making “a real and permanent” contribution to society.

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Anglo American is a national champion

“This is why every great nation needs what is typically termed ‘a national champion’.

“While many of these grow beyond their country of origin and at times evolved to much smaller scales, companies as diverse as General Electric, Airbus, Michelin, Hyundai and Samsung are known in their country of origin as ‘national champions’.

“Their role is not only to continue the quest for enterprise but to uphold a sense of national pride and contribution.”

Blecher says the point that has been missing in the Anglo American-BHP debate is not what the mining company ought to do, but its DNA.

“Ignoring this means that we lose sight of what is actually right for South Africa. A business that evolved over its 107-year journey is an essential link between the past and the future of our country.”

Anglo’s long life has owed as much to a constant awareness of what it was and what it stood for as to its ability, right from the beginning of its long history, to change, expand and re-focus its activities to meet the demands of the time, he says.

What does South Africa stand to lose?

Blecher says South Africa is fortunate that despite the continuing inequity in access to education, a handful of companies committed themselves to opening the doors of learning for many and Anglo American is a standout leader amongst these.

He says the list is endless when considering Anglo Americans contribution to education.

The company recently committed R1 billion to education over a ten-year programme, making it the largest private sector-funded education programme in South Africa.

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Anglo American’s commitment to education

“When we started one of our first bold attempts at making tertiary education inclusive and free, decades before the ‘fees must fall’ movement, we quickly realised we would need a location that would address the scale required for a venture to educate tens of thousands of youth, which was once again generously donated by the company.”

Through the success and evolution of the Maharishi Invincibility Institute, Anglo came to the party once more in 2023, Blecher says, handing over one of the crown jewels in its history to serve the youth of the city of Johannesburg – the 45 Main Street building.

He says the Maharishi Invincibility Institute’s relationship with Anglo American, which started originally in 1979, through its mother non-profit association, has grown from strength to strength over many decades.

“In a world where global markets are fiercely competitive and resources, such as copper, are increasingly scarce, it is only natural to expect that companies will often merge, dissolve and re-emerge.

“But what we cannot accept is the erasure of the DNA of a company like Anglo, which is at the very fabric of much that is good in our society.”

Blecher emphasises that this ethos made Anglo not just a company, but a distinctive and essential part of South Africa’s communities.

“As decisions are made in boardrooms by others in far-flung places, those involved must consider Anglo’s unique role in South African society and reflect on preserving the values that have long set it apart.”

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