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‘I hope history will judge him kindly’

The murder of mining magnate Brett Kebble in Johannesburg this week comes just weeks after being ousted as head of Western Areas, JCI and Randgold & Exploration (R&E) amid accusations of financial irregularities and corporate governance lapses. His name has also been tied to the mysterious disappearance of 14,4-million shares in Randgold Resources, worth about R1,5-billion at current prices.

Kebble told Moneyweb in July that most of these missing shares had been loaned to Bookmark Holdings, an empowerment vehicle that financed the purchase of a stake in Western Areas from Anglo American.

But the fact that R&E has yet to publish its financial results for the year ended December 31 2004, resulting in its suspension from the JSE and delisting from Nasdaq, fuels suspicion that Kebble had something to hide.

After a brilliant start in mining 14 years ago, Kebble’s later years were mired in controversy. He authored a string of complex financial deals to keep his companies afloat and took enormous risks, chief of which was the R4-billion South Deep mine, a joint venture between Western Areas and Placer Dome, which was commissioned earlier this year.

But the mine suffered technical setbacks in the development, was late in the commissioning, and much of its output hedged at prices that denied it full exposure to the rising metal price.

Had South Deep come on stream two years earlier, Kebble’s financial problems would have evaporated and his reputation rehabilitated. But it was not to be.

He studied law at the University of Cape Town and became a partner at law firm Mallinicks in 1992. A year earlier he and his father Roger bought a controlling stake in Rand Leases Gold Mining, and in 1994 he engineered a takeover of R&E. A decade ago, the Kebbles were fêted by investors for challenging the old mining house model that was slowly strangling the industry by squatting on mining assets and extorting fees from operational mines. They ditched the mining house model and introduced the kind of entrepreneurial flair that accompanied the birth of gold mining in South Africa.

Out of R&E came Randgold Resources which, after a rocky start, went on to achieve great success as a gold mining company based in West Africa. While Randgold Resources hit the jackpot with its Morila mine in Mali, R&E’s share price was weighed down by the “Kebble factor”.

Institutional shareholders and bankers deserted the Kebbles in recent years, and it is believed that Kebble’s resignation was a condition of Investec’s R460-million bail-out of JCI.

His world came crashing down around him in recent weeks, and colleagues described the normally ebullient Kebble as “subdued” by the misfortunes that beset him. “He felt he had let himself down,” says one colleague.

Says Harmony CEO Bernard Swane­poel: “I hope history will judge him kindly. Brett was very likeable, a laugh a minute, and a man with a vision for the mining industry. He had a great strategic brain, and brought a dimension of risk taking back into gold mining that had been missing from the industry for a long time.”

“He was larger than life, and incorrigible in an affectionate way,” says Brian Gibson, who handles investor relations for Western Areas. “He was a truly remarkable man with a sharp intellect who left those around him struggling to keep up with him. When he turned on the charm, it was like a powerful spotlight. He had an ability to seduce people and bring them on board.”

Colleagues say Kebble’s passion for mining had not dimmed, despite his resignation from executive positions in JCI, R&E and Western Areas.

“He was planning a come-back,” says Kebble’s spokesperson and adviser Dave Barrit. “He told me he never wanted to be CEO of a public company again, but he certainly had unfinished business in mining.”

Gibson says Kebble’s murder poses a challenge for R&E, which is trying to get its results for the last financial year published. “It would have been more convenient if Brett had been around to explain some of these complex transactions he entered into,” he says.

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Ciaran Ryan
Guest Author

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