Attack threatens Richards Bay Minerals’ new mine
Truck petrol-bombed near Sokhulu and militant youths threaten fragile accord between company and community
A new attack on contractors at the Rio Tinto Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) mine in the Sokhulu area has placed in jeopardy the fragile agreement between the company and locals, who closed the mine down earlier this year.
The attack – in which a Unitrans haulage truck was set alight near the mine’s pits – came days before the official opening of community facilities at nearby Port Durnford. This is where RBM’s new Zulti South mine is being developed.
The attack was carried out by a group of about 12 men, who petrol-bombed a truck carrying pig iron to the RBM smelter at KwaMbonambi, near Richards Bay, on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast. The men fled into the bush on the side of the road when police arrived.
Nobody was injured in the attack, but RBM stepped up security patrols this week in response to the renewed threat.
Another threat by militant youths from Sokhulu, this time to disrupt the opening ceremony at Port Durnford, came to nothing. The event was attended by Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane and it went ahead as planned, albeit several hours late.
Last month, the mine was forced to stop production for a full week. This was after assaults on workers and the burning of plant equipment by residents of Sokhulu and Mbonambi, who were demanding jobs and contracts at RBM.
The attacks ended after the intervention of then economic development MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu, who was axed in a subsequent Cabinet reshuffle.
It is not clear what effect the leadership change will have on an agreement between the community, RBM management and the unions to look at how to employ as many locals as possible, and how to give local companies more business from the mine.
An RBM spokesperson confirmed the attack, which took place near one of RBM’s link stations, saying that it had not affected operations and they were continuing as normal.
Managing director, Mpho Mothoa, emphasised that the safety of all employees, including contractors, was “our number one priority”.
RBM employs about 2 000 contractors and 2 000 full-time employees, and makes up 50% of KwaZuluNatal’s mining revenue.
Mothoa, who has been part of the negotiations with local communities, condemned the attack “with contempt” and said the destruction of company property “serves no purpose”.
“We will no longer tolerate such behaviour. Our team is working around the clock to ensure the individuals involved in the incident are brought to book.
“We appeal to anyone who has information to come forward as this will assist us to root out these detractors,” he said.
Mothoa said the company was working on a framework for engagement with RBM’s host communities – involving the local traditional leaders, local government and the broader communities.
“The destruction of assets and any provocation is completely unacceptable, and nothing more than criminal, bent on destabilising this process,” he said.
He told the Port Durnford audience, who had come to the opening of the multipurpose centre, that “pockets” of people did not understand the benefits from the operation and had tried to derail agreements being struck with the community.
One of the residents involved in the earlier protest, who asked not to be named, said he was sceptical about the agreements being reached.
“This process is taking very long. They are still deciding who should talk to who. We are getting very frustrated,” he said.
The new Zulti South mine is to start operating next year and will extend the life of RBM to 2034.
It plans to use a system of ponds and floating dredges to mine and recover minerals, including ilmenite, zircon and rutile, from the sand.
Smelting, and slag and iron processing will continue to take place at RBM’s KwaMbonambi smelter.
The company sends about 98% of the 2 million tons of products it produces each year to foreign paint, glass and automotive customers.
Production includes 100 000 tons of rutile and 250 000 tons of zircon.
RBM said it hoped the new mine would allow the company to maintain existing production levels as mineral reserves at the existing KwaMbonambi mine dry up.