Optimum workers paid but questions raised about future sale

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There was no reason to place Optimum Coal Mine into business rescue other than the financing woes of Tegeta Exploration and the now fugitive Gupta family, Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources heard on Wednesday.

Goodwill Mthombeni, Chairman of the Optimum branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, told the committee the union believed the reported sale of Optimum to a Swiss clothing company was not above board and that according to company statements, Tegeta had made R2.2 billion since it acquired the mine in 2016.

Mthombeni says after a standoff with management, permanent workers at the coal mine began receiving their salaries on Tuesday.

“Starting yesterday, they were paid. I am only talking about permanent employees.”

NUM called a strike at Optimum last week in protest at workers not receiving their wages. He says similar problems had been reported at other mines belonging to Tegeta, including Koornfontein and Evander.

“They call me and say if you go there, talk about us too,” says Mthombeni.

He described the sale of the company as “fake”, claiming that R400 million had been paid to Tegeta without due diligence being done.

The management of Optimum on Wednesday failed to show up for the briefing to the committee, prompting Chairman Sahlulele Luzipo to remark that it was proving impossible to establish the true facts of the situation and that the Department of Mineral Resources seemed to be in the dark.

Luzipo says Optimum CEO George van der Merwe must be obliged to appear before the committee.

The committee heard from the department that Optimum had flouted its social obligations, which it stressed had been respected by the previous owners Glencore. It had not completed the construction of a clinic at the mine, allegedly because it did not want to pay the contractor who was building it.

Officials said it appeared that the mines were placed into business rescue this month purely because the company had no financing capacity. There were no operational issues, but having the mine at a standstill would in a short period of time affect its operational soundness because underground machinery and structures were not maintained.

Luzipo says it reminded him of the asset-stripping scandal that occurred at the Aurora mine, which resulted in staff fighting for years to obtain their due wages.

Optimum has been at the centre of allegations of collusion between Eskom, the mineral resources ministry and the Gupta family to force Glencore to sell the mine to Tegeta, which then secured a lucrative coal supply contract with the power utility.

Commercial banks closed the accounts of the family after their central role in alleged “state capture” emerged and in recent weeks law enforcement agencies have closed in on them, at the same time as president Jacob Zuma was forced out of office.

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