* Fourth-quarter earnings plunge on strikes
* Strikes wipe out $208 million of earnings
* Company in transition as CEO exits (Adds sector perspective, Chamber of Mines quote)
JOHANNESBURG, Feb 20 (Reuters) - AngloGold Ashanti, the world’s third-largest bullion producer, posted a plunge in quarterly earnings, hit by wildcat strikes at its South African mines and troubles at one of its largest African operations.
The South Africa-based miner said on Wednesday fourth-quarter adjusted headline earnings were 2 U.S. cents compared with 61 U.S. cents in the previous quarter.
Production dropped to 859,000 ounces in the quarter after 250,000 ounces, or $208 million in earnings, were wiped out by work stoppages that included illegal strikes and underground sit-ins at its South African operations.
Full-year production was 3.9 million ounces, well off the company’s target of between 4.3 and 4.4 million ounces.
“We took a hit in South Africa,” said chief executive Mark Cutifani, who leaves to lead Anglo American in April, adding that the company stalled the re-opening of its South African operations this year.
“We were unhappy with the way one or two operations came back to work and we sent people back home. We then spent about ten days with the guys working, reinforcing the need to treat each other with dignity and respect.”
Obuasi, its largest mine in Ghana, also continued to underperform. A decision in October to change the mine development contractor cost the company $44 million. Already part of AngloGold for more than a decade, Cutifani said Obuasi was taking too long to deliver.
South African gold and platinum producers have been scarred by violent labour clashes that late last year halted operations and slashed production.
More than 50 people were killed in labour strife last year, including 34 shot dead by police at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in August - the deadliest single security incident in South Africa since apartheid ended in 1994.
“It is not just one company that is facing the challenges, many of the companies are in the same boat,” Roger Baxter, a senior executive at the Chamber of Mines told a South African parliamentary committee on Wednesday.
AngloGold’s closest rival Gold Fields reported a 20 percent fall in headline earnings last week, largely due to the impact of an illegal strike at two South African mines it has since spun off.
Harmony Gold, however, which produces 95 percent of its gold in South Africa, reported a 28 percent hike in headline earnings for the three months to end-December.
AngloGold is already in the middle of a corporate and cost review with some assets, like Namibia’s only gold mine Navachab, considered for sale. It has also pushed back some projects.
“Capital numbers have been kept tight, we continue to trim where we do not see real short-term uplift,” said Cutifani.
Gold equities have historically traded at a discount to the metal but South African mining shares have felt additional pain thanks to the sector’s tarnished image.
“The thing that concerns me most is getting performance back into the share price,” Cutifani said.
AngloGold’s shares dropped 3.90 percent to trade at 231.51 rand, in line with the JSE’s gold index, which was 3.45 percent lower by 1236 GMT. (Reporting by Sherilee Lakmidas and Wendell Roelf; Editing by Mark Potter and Helen Massy-Beresford)