Billions of rands ride on the shoulders of Judge Raymond Zondo, who was scheduled to deliver judgment on Thursday on the long-running mineral rights saga at Sishen, the giant open-cast iron-ore mine in the Northern Cape.
In a potentially precedent-setting case, Zondo has been tasked with adjudicating between competing interpretations of the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act as it applies to jointly held stakes in a single mine.
Zondo's judgment will have a large impact on the share prices of two major listed companies, Kumba Iron Ore and ArcelorMittal, and the personal fortunes of a host of politically connected individuals.
They include President Jacob Zuma's son, Duduzane; Jagdish Parekh, a top lieutenant of the Gupta family, regarded as Zuma benefactors; and Gugu Mtshali, the long-term romantic partner of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.
The Act, which came into effect in 2004, gave mining companies five years to convert their old mining rights into new ones. When the conversion deadline passed in April 2009, iron-ore miner Kumba, which held a 78.6% stake in Sishen, had applied to convert its stake. But steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal, which held the remaining 21.4%, had not.
Kumba and politically connected company Imperial Crown Trading 289 raced to acquire the rights to ArcelorMittal's now-available 21.4% stake, and the department of mineral resources eventually awarded a prospecting right to Imperial.
The little-known company, whose directors include Mtshali, co-founder Phemelo Sehunelo and former Mineworkers' Investment Company chairperson Archie Luhlabo, gained a net worth of billions overnight.
In August 2010 ArcelorMittal offered to buy out Imperial and incorporate its directors into a new black employment equity (BEE) consortium that included Duduzane and Parekh, also making them instant billionaires.
But ArcelorMittal's buy-out of Imperial was never consummated and its subsequent appearance before Zondo to argue that Imperial should not have been awarded the right threatened to tear the new-found riches from Imperial's grasp.
The civil case before Zondo, which was brought by Kumba, concerns whether the department interpreted the law properly and administered the awarding of the prospecting right to Imperial fairly.
It should not to be confused with criminal proceedings kick-started by police raids of Imperial and the department's Kimberley offices by the Hawks in July. The Hawks are investigating whether Imperial directors or department staff committed forgery by copying parts of Kumba's application.
Zondo has sifted through thousands of pages of legal papers, poring over the arguments of the four main protagonists, since the court hearing in August.
Kumba is opposing the award to Imperial, alleging that in its haste to grab the lucrative stake it had submitted "incomplete, manipulated and fraudulent" documentation to the department.
Kumba also disputes the process through which the department awarded Imperial a prospecting right over the 21.4% stake, arguing that Kumba already held a right to mine at Sishen that could not be superseded by a prospecting right in the same area.
If Zondo agrees, Kumba will be lords of all they survey with a right to mine 100% of Sishen.
ArcelorMittal argues that its minority stake in Sishen was an undivided one and when Kumba converted its majority stake it also converted the steel manufacturer's minority stake on its behalf.
Kumba's subsequent attempt to acquire ArcelorMittal's stake was "a very late stab in the back in the dark", the company argued.
If Zondo agrees, ArcelorMittal will be back in the saddle with a 21.4% stake in Sishen. It will also be in a stronger position to renegotiate a favourable iron-ore supply agreement with Kumba, which the latter cancelled in February 2010.
Imperial argues that it was entitled to apply for the 21.4% stake left vacant by ArcelorMittal's failure to convert its old-order mining right.
It also claims that Kumba prejudiced its right to apply for the stake by doing so a day before ArcelorMittal's ownership expired. It alleges that Kumba fiddled the dates on its application for the soon-to-be-available stake to steal a march on other potential bidders.
Imperial also argues that it applied for a prospecting right over an area that incorporates more than the immediate vicinity of the Sishen mine and intended converting it into a full mining right in due course.
If Zondo agrees, the net worth of Imperial's directors will again soar, because they will be free to negotiate with whoever they choose for the best possible deal on the Sishen stake. The criminal case against its directors will also be weakened.
Department of mineral resources
A decision in favour of Imperial would vindicate the department, which argues that the Act provides for the redistribution of mineral wealth to the previously disadvantaged. Former deputy director general Jacinto Rocha was responsible for approving the prospecting right applications.
If Zondo agrees, the department will breathe a huge sigh of relief and feel justified in awarding a prospecting right to Imperial rather than a mining right to Kumba. The criminal case against staff in the Northern Cape regional office who handled both Kumba and Imperial's applications for ArcelorMittal's stake is also likely be weakened.
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