MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling! August 23 2004

Published by MAC on 2004-08-23

London Calling! August 23 2004

Last weekend’s big London mining scandal places Charter at the centre of a ten million pounds embezzlement.

By “charter” we don’t mean the tactic adopted by BHPBilliton, the world’s most successful-ever mining company (judging by its latest results), in order to justify its aggressive forays into Africa and now India. (Anyone who thinks that dressing-up its portfolios in green and virginal white will acquit BHPBilliton of responsibility for trespassing on Orissa’s tribal land – much of it protected forest – in pursuit of iron and bauxite, needs their morals tested).

No, we’re referring to what remains of the eponymous British-South African conglomerate, granted a royal charter by Queen Victoria, the Empress of India, back in the nineteenth century.

Charter is now a shadow of its former self with only two main businesses - welding and cutting, and "gas handling". Neither of these subsidiaries are said to be involved in the latest fraud – rather someone in the top echelons of the company’s finance department. However others, both inside and outside the company, may have been involved. Thankfully Scotland Yard is on the case. (And so, presumably is Charter’s new finance director who goes by the rather unfortunate name of Robert Careless.)

International vehicle for apartheid

Now’s a good time to remind ourselves of the real crimes Charter has got away with. Dubbed by the Financial Times in 1984 “a wondrous hybrid of industrial holding company and investment trust”, the newspaper nonetheless concluded that Charter Consolidated plc “seems to enjoy the drawbacks of both and the advantages of neither”.

It was founded twenty years earlier by Harry Oppenheimer, then Anglo American-De Beers’ chief fixer, out of the rump of the old British South African company. Oppenheimer baldly declared Charter would “ease the penetration of areas where Anglo American’s direct South African connections could be embarrassing…and improve the support of bodies such as the World Bank”. For another decade and a half Charter fulfilled its function, principally through Minorco, the Luxembourg-based offshoot used by Anglo American during the worst days of violence by the apartheid regime (part-financed by Anglo) against its citizens.

Over this period, as Anglo American's British affiliate, Charter became the largest single shareholder in Rio Tinto (then RTZ); later operating a joint venture with Rio Tinto in a Cornish tin mine. By 1979 Anglo had cut back Charter’s role as a primary miner. Nonetheless, throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, it still invested in major British engineering and construction companies and Anglo-American Zimbabwe. Through the Malaysian Mining Corp (MMC) it was the means by which Anglo American secured important profits from its joint venture in Rio Tinto’s vast Argyle diamond mine – carved out of a sacred Aboriginal Women’s Dreaming Place in Western Australia.

Charter also held a key share in Cleveland Potash – the only example of submarine mine tailings disposal (STD) in the UK - and, most important, a prime stake in the world’s biggest marketer of platinum, London-based Johnson Matthey.

Killer company

This may seem dry history: even well-informed mine-watchers probably believe this major neo-colonial enterprise long ago disappeared from the face of other peoples’ earth.

But it didn’t and it hasn’t. In 1995, Charter still owned Cape Asbestos, probably the most pernicious of several asbestos mining enterprises that have killed or blighted the lives of thousands of South African miners and their families. An attempt by South African and British lawyers to join Charter and Anglo American to the recent compensation claim against Cape, unfortunately failed. By then Charter had sold out its Cape subsidiary.

Today, as testified by a new British television documentary, Charter/Cape’s abandoned and unrehabilitated apartheid-era mines spew forth blue asbestos. The victims of the companies' satanic mines and mills received only £7.5 million in compensation - a fraction of Anglo-American’s cumulative profits from its asbestos productions.

Not to mention even less than the £10 million nicked by a top Charter employee
tax free.

Chip off the old block?

Recent promises by BHPBilliton’s top koala, Chip Goodyear, to promote a corporate “Charter” prompts an intriguing question: did he get the idea from the Mines and Communities website? MAC’s “charter” page is not only the home of a radical statement on the mining industry which preceded the famous London Declaration. It’s also replete with examples of the kind of “corp-speak” in which Mr Goodyear readily indulges.

Not, I understand, that the editors of MAC would be churlish enough to initiate action for breach of intellectual property rights.

No more will they crow over the fact that, last week, the Financial Times finally acknowledged that London may be overtaking Toronto as the key global mine finance capital. It’s something MAC has been warning against for four years and is, after all, the raison d’etre for “London Calling”.

A case of the profit in one’s own country not getting widely recognised until it’s too late?

[Sources: Charter scandal: The Guardian, 21/8/2004; BHPBilliton results: FT 18/8/2004; Charter assessment: FT 26/6/1984; Oppenheimer quote: Richard Hall “The High Price of Principles”, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973; Malaysian Mining Corp and Argyle : Janine Roberts “Glitter and Greed”, Disinformation Ltd, New York, 2003; Charter and Rio Tinto: “Plunder” Partizans & CAFCA, London and Christchurch 1991; Cleveland Potash and Johnson Matthey: FT 8/1/2/1989; submarine tailings disposal: Roger Moody “Into the Unknown Regions”, SSC and International Books, London and Utrecht 2001; Cape Asbestos legacy: “You will know them by their trail of death”, Human Eye Films, producer Laurie Flynn, broadcast ITV Channel Three, London, 15/8/2004; Financial Times comes to London: FT 19/8/2004 article can be viewed here]

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