The rich mineral deposits found in Richards Bay, an industrial city on the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, are both a gift and a curse. Their mining and beneficiation create thousands of jobs and contribute to the city’s coffers through taxes, but their presence is also the cause of conflict and murder as well as environmental devastation.
Richards Bay Minerals (RBM), majority owned by multinational mining giant Rio Tinto, is an example of this. RBM, whose main product is titanium dioxide slag, says on its website it directly employs about 2 000 people full-time and has just over 3 000 contract workers.
At present, RBM operates four mines in the Zulti North lease area, alongside a mineral separation plant and smelting facility. But since the ore grades at Zulti North have been declining for many years, the company has been planning a R6.5 billion expansion that would extend its operations by another 25 years. The plans, however, were put on hold in 2019 owing to security concerns.
RBM’s host communities are KwaMbonambi, KwaSokhulu, Mkhwanazi, Dube and Mandlanzini. In 2020, the company said, it contributed R8 billion directly to the South African economy in the form of salaries, royalties and taxes, despite significant lockdowns owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, R1.5 billion of its R5.5 billion procurement spend for the year went to local Richards Bay businesses and over R500 million was spent in its host communities, which also benefited from social projects worth over R43 million.
But this financial injection has led to bloody contestation that has pitted the mine against impoverished locals, opportunistic elites and disillusioned youths who are struggling to find employment. Young people say they have to bear the brunt of the environmental effects of mining but have nothing to show for it.
They also accuse members of the local traditional council of corruption, saying those seeking work at RBM have to get special permits from izinduna (headmen) to show they are from the area and thus “eligible” to work at the company. These jobs are lucrative, and there are allegations that izinduna take bribes from outsiders to pass as locals.
Jabu Mthethwa, 32, says she completed a two-year learnership at RBM but was never hired. She now sells sandwiches, fish, vetkoek and and fruit outside the main RBM mine. “When it rains we cannot sell because there is no shelter,” she said.
Fellow hawker Zanele Mbokazi, 46, has four children, two of whom are in their 20s and unemployed. She says the allegations about RBM and izinduna are true. “Even our children have been trying to [get work here] but they are ignored. They bring people from outside. We see it here every day because we sell here,” she said.
Derrick Dube, 43, a resident of KwaMbonambi, says RBM’s operations have forced the village to dig boreholes as they compete for water. “Even these borehole initiatives are supposed to be supported by RBM, but they do nothing to support us as small contractors,” he said. “We have no water as RBM is siphoning water from all three rivers. We have constant load shedding in our homes, yet the electricity that Eskom supplies to RBM is non-stop, even during severe load shedding.”
Richard Mbuyazi, a Richards Bay-based environmental activist with the Isolemvelo Community Environmental Group, says RBM’s operations are destroying the environment. According to Mbuyazi, RBM sources its water from the Mzingazi, Nhlabane and Nsezi lakes and from the St Lucia estuary.
“The local communities had no water until recently because local water sources had been gobbled by RBM. The environmental and ecological damage due to the dune mining is beyond measure. We have had many discussions with RBM and other stakeholders to try and rectify the damage done. The streams that were once pristine are now destroyed by the sludge from the mining. The water slides into people’s fields and peoples’ homes, destroying crops and cracking homes,” he said.
Watson Ndlela, chairperson of the KwaMbonambi Land Committee, says tension in the area rose sharply in 2018 after RBM gave R79 million to the Kwambonambi Development Trust to fund community projects. “We don’t know what has happened to that money. Nobody has been able to account for this money. All we see is that members who are in charge of these funds buy themselves luxury cars and show off lavish lifestyles on social networks,” he said.
Ndlela says the disputes will only be resolved if the provincial government appoints the traditional leader of KwaMbonambi to manage the disbursement of the royalties the community gets from RBM. But since there are two rival families who are both claiming the leadership, this solution is not straightforward.
RBM’s personnel and operations have been attacked in the past few years, but who is behind it has not been established. Many people say it is linked to local residents’ dissatisfaction over their lack of access to jobs. The most recent incident happened in June when a group of men and women – believed to be from KwaSokhulu – burnt heavy machinery in what was an alleged arson attack. The circumstances are still being investigated by the KwaMbonambi police and no one has been arrested. RBM closed down its operations after that and restarted them only in late August.
Months before that, on 24 May, RBM general manager of operations Nico Swart was killed in a hail of bullets on his way to work. His murder was blamed on tension between the mine and local communities. Two employees were also shot and injured late in 2019, while in August 2016, human resources general manager Ronny Nzimande, 39, was shot and killed in an apparent hit. He is said to have been targeted after investigating some of the mine’s supplier contracts.
But local residents have also been under attack. On 11 December 2019, community leader Meshack Mbuyazi was gunned down about 30 minutes after attending a meeting called by KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala to end the impasse in the Mbuyazi clan over the traditional leadership. A relative, Judea Mbuyazi, was shot and killed in July 2020 outside the Lakeside Mall in Richards Bay. In May 2021, KwaMbonambi land activist Msizi “Rasta” Mthethwa, 34, was assassinated by a gunman while sitting in his car at a shopping centre in Empangeni.
The government is desperate to secure RBM’s investment, but it is seemingly unable to find a lasting solution to the conflict between the mine and its surrounding communities, as well as the tensions within communities because of mining in their areas.
During a recent visit, many people in these communities had complaints about RBM and its operations, but they were afraid to go on record because of the violence meted out to those who dare to speak out. A group of men and women in the Nkunzebomvu area of KwaMbonambi accused RBM of driving a wedge between members of the community who are for and against mining.
“There are many local activists who lost their lives after RBM had awarded them contracts and turned them against the same community they were fighting for. These people have been shot and killed after becoming turncoats. I have known no less than 12 people who have been killed in this manner,” said one woman.
Her sentiments were echoed by an activist from KwaSokhulu. “RBM is making a lot of money here. Why can’t they have a genuine empowerment effort that would benefit the surrounding communities, that would ensure that local youths get jobs in the mine, where the mine is compensating communities who are affected by the environmental degradation due to the mining activities?” he said.
The government’s role
Heinz de Boer, the DA’s spokesperson for economic development in KwaZulu-Natal, says both the national and provincial governments have allowed the problems to escalate over the years by not intervening earlier.
“At the heart of the issue is money, local community structures and the empowerment of communities surrounding the RBM operations. The mineral resources mined by RBM are certainly not a curse to the region or the province. Of course, it is a scandalous indictment on [the police] that those who choose to kill RBM managers and set equipment alight are still at large.”
De Boer says a new “community beneficiation model” is needed so that peace can return and the mine operations resume normally. “Going forward, I see negotiation as the only solution. This should ideally be led by an independent business expert with government, communities and the business sector involved.”
Zikalala, who has tried to mediate in the disputes between RBM and local communities, said in July during a media briefing on developments at the mine that there would be “more engagements with other stakeholders as we will not rest until we reach a long-lasting solution”.
“We recognise the immense economic impact that RBM operations have in the region and we believe that RBM operations and its employees must be protected. We equally recognise the genuine concerns raised by the host communities, including those by the youth of KwaSokhulu, but emphasise that such concerns should be raised in a manner that does not compromise jobs and the safety of individuals,” said Zikalala.
He added that RBM had agreed to reserve at least 40% of general worker positions for members of the KwaSokhulu community. In terms of objections to the environmental impact of RBM’s operations, he said they would “need to be deferred to the relevant committee”.
But environmental organisations like Isolemvelo say the government is conflicted and biased in favour of RBM on this matter as it is heavily reliant on the tax it gets and the jobs it provides.
In late August, RBM said it had reached an agreement with its host communities to closely monitor their trust funds through external audits. This would ensure better governance and greater transparency. After the signing of this agreement, RBM released over R130 million to the trusts.
“This is a major milestone,” said RBM managing director Werner Duvenhage at the time. “The contribution RBM makes to the communities through these funds will be put to achieving its intended purpose, which is to directly support local economic development in the communities. We are grateful for the support and collaboration of amakhosi, provincial and national governments, and other stakeholders. With this agreement, all parties have come together to commit to long-term modernisation of the trusts for the benefit of the host communities.
“With the agreement in place, we believe that together with visible improvements on the safety and security front and support from the provincial and national governments and host communities, including reaching an earlier agreement with the Sokhulu Youth Forum, RBM has made good progress on the core issues …”
David Mfeka, 65, a resident of KwaMbonambi who worked for RBM for 31 years, said he shudders to think what the area would be like without RBM. “This company has been providing for the workers and local community for many years. Imagine if all that is gone,” he said.