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South African petrochemicals group Sasol was forced to cancel its annual meeting on Friday after climate activists stormed the stage, interrupting chief executive Fleetwood Grobler as he tried to address shareholders.
The group was facing a shareholder rebellion after two of the country’s big investment managers, Ninety One and Old Mutual Investment Group, warned that they would vote against the company over environmental targets.
They have been critical of the company, South Africa’s second-biggest greenhouse emitter, for what they say is its lack of clarity on commitments to cut emissions by a third by 2030.
Other shareholders declined to commit to a position ahead of the vote.
Activists took to the stage at the company’s Johannesburg headquarters, throwing into chaos what was set to be a landmark moment for corporate governance in South Africa.
Ninety One and Old Mutual, which together own about 5 per cent of Sasol, have different and independent objections to the company’s disclosures.
But their outspokenness has broken with tradition for South African institutional investors, which usually engage companies behind closed doors rather than airing complaints publicly.
It reflects the increasing pressure on industry over the pace of the country’s energy transition.
Sasol said: “Once it became clear that the protesters would not accommodate the effective participation of other shareholders, cancelling the meeting became the only prudent option, as the chairman was inhibited from effectively communicating with the shareholders present at the meeting.” It added that it would update shareholders on a way forward.
Sasol is behind only the coal power stations of Eskom, the blackout-prone state electricity monopoly, in driving South Africa’s overall emissions.
The company produces fuels and chemicals from coal, including using a plant in Secunda in South Africa’s north-eastern Mpumalanga coal heartland that ranks as the world’s biggest single-site source of key greenhouse gases.
Sasol has made pledges to invest in renewable energy and green hydrogen, and to replace some coal with natural gas.
In a recent climate change report it said that external factors, from rising global gas prices to problems securing grid access for power, were risks to this transition.
“All these variables impact the affordability of our road map, which to be achievable has to be affordable . . . our transformation to a Future Sasol is most unlikely to follow a linear path,” Grobler said in the report.
This week Sasol said that Old Mutual’s call to vote against the report and other issues were “flawed and underpinned by conjecture”, in rare public criticism by a South African company of a big shareholder.
The protesters chanted “Sasol stinks” before the annual meeting was cancelled. Sasol said it would issue a statement later on Friday.
“It’s extremely unfortunate that it was cancelled so quickly,” said Tracey Davies, executive director of Just Share, a Cape Town-based advocacy group for responsible investing, which has criticised Sasol’s disclosures.
Old Mutual’s public stance in particular was “an extraordinarily progressive move in the context of South African shareholder engagement and activism”, Davies said.
Private engagement “is not working with Sasol, and the longer that engagement goes on and it does not meet targets, the more investors will be implicated”.
Sasol also announced that Grobler would be succeeded as chief executive by Simon Baloyi, an internal appointment and company veteran, who will face the group’s first milestone under the climate targets in 2026.