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South African at heart

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Although Penny’s passion for mining was deepened via his godfather’s links with De Beers, the native South African was naturally drawn to the sector, given its importance as the fundamental basis of the country’s economy.

He was also a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in the UK, an international postgraduate award named after Anglo-South African mining magnate and politician Cecil John Rhodes. There Penny studied politics and economics, and then accounting.

“Essentially my background to mining is one of business, not geology or mining. I think it made no difference – any of those disciplines are very important, but I think having finance is tremendously important, particularly for business going forward – I think you’ve got to have a very, very good understanding of the numbers,” he says.

Growing up in Cape Town, Penny was still relatively young in the main part of the apartheid years, but Africa had started to change significantly by the time he entered his 20s. “It was a very exciting to be part of a changing period in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela being released from prison and all the negotiations that took place leading to the emergence of the rainbow nation,” he tells Metal Market Magazine.

“I believe there’s a great future ahead for South Africa – we had ten years that we aren’t particularly proud of, but I see that as an aberration from a journey that I think will produce a really great nation one day,” he says.

Part of that journey will come with country’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, the fifth since South Africa’s 1994 democratic transition. The country is “immensely fortunate” to have Ramaphosa, Penny believes, citing his triple-whammy skillset of experience in mining, business and politics.

A number of people have been mentors to Penny, but he singles out former De Beers and Anglo American chairman Harry Oppenheimer, father of Nicky Oppenheimer, as a “great inspiration” to him. “He was an extraordinary man, and a huge inspiration to an entire generation of people in Anglo and De Beers. He was so far ahead of his time in many ways – his public position opposing apartheid, his force of character and determination to be part of change in South Africa,” he adds.

Although he travels between Moscow, Russia and London, UK for work and family, Penny himself still spends a significant amount of time in South Africa, where he owns a wine farm just outside Cape Town.

“We produce some absolutely delicious wine – I’m very interested and passionate about wine. That’s a big hobby for me,” he says. “We spend a lot of time there as a family, visiting several times a year and taking over the whole place with friends and extended family. It’s just a very, very special place and we have some extraordinary times there,” he adds.

Penny is also “a very outdoors person” and spends a lot of his spare time walking, climbing mountains, and swimming.

His involvement with diamonds led to a personal high: Penny met his wife, Kate, when he worked in Botswana, when she visited the Okavango Delta with friends for a holiday. “It is a very romantic place for us,” Penny adds. The couple have two children, Ella and Benjamin. Both are gearing up to follow in their father’s footsteps: his daughter is reading earth science at Oxford University, and his son has a conditional place there to do the same.

“I’m afraid mining is in the family’s blood,” Penny says. “My children are very motivated and have spent so much time in the field with geologists doing exploration – they’ve completely got the bug.”

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