Global miner Anglo American is close to appointing Australian Mark Cutifani, head of gold miner AngloGold Ashanti , as its new chief executive, two sources familiar with the situation said.

If the appointment is finalized, Cutifani will replace Cynthia Carroll in what analysts and investors see as one of the toughest jobs in the business, joining Anglo as it tackles restive unions in South Africa, restructures its platinum arm and tries to recover from delays that have driven up the cost of a flagship iron ore project in Brazil.

Carroll announced in October that she planned to step down after more than five years at the helm, under pressure from investors unhappy with Anglo's lagging share price and its dependence on strike-hit South Africa.

"There are other people still in the running, but (Cutifani) is further down the line," one of the sources said on Sunday. "Everyone is hopeful, but with a CEO leaving his current job it is complicated."

An announcement is expected by mid-January but could come sooner, the source said.

The charismatic, straight-talking Cutifani - a prominent figure in South African mining who has defended the country as an investment destination - had been named as one of a handful of potential candidates from the start of Anglo's search process last year.

His relative lack of experience in some of Anglo's major commodities and geographies like Brazil - key for the recovery of the group's share price - had prompted some analysts to question the potential move. But his South African credentials - he is also head of the country's Chamber of Mines - appear to have outweighed other shortcomings.

"The South African experience was the most important factor. Very few people have that stakeholder and government relations experience," the source said.

South Africa accounts for more than half Anglo's forecast earnings, and the miner faces another critical year there, wrestling uncompromising unions and preparing to overhaul its South Africa-focused, strike-battered platinum arm, Amplats . The platinum plan is set to be unveiled this month.

Cutifani, 54, has run AngloGold, created from Anglo American's gold assets, since 2007, and investors have welcomed his focus on improving returns. His appointment to AngloGold's top job was a surprise, when he was plucked from Canadian mining group Inco, now part of Brazil's Vale .

Should he be hired, Cutifani would become only the second non-South African and only the second outsider to head the group after New Jersey-born Carroll.

His appointment would signal South Africa's continued importance to Anglo American, but potentially also the group's willingness to consider options including a carve-out of some operations. As head of AngloGold, Cutifani has never ruled out a potential spin-off of the gold miner's South African operations.

Other candidates named by industry sources and analysts for Anglo's top job have included Rene Medori, Anglo's finance director, and Peter Whitcutt, the firm's director of strategy.

Along with Cutifani, ex-BHP Billiton chief financial officer Alex Vanselow and chief executive of Xstrata Mike Davis were named as external candidates tipped for the job.

Anglo American declined to comment. AngloGold could not immediately be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Tommy Wilkes and Clara Ferreira-Marques; Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford)