Fresh protests shut Rio’s Richards Bay mine

Residents protest against RBM as the mine closed for the day. Picture: Siyanda Mayeza
Residents protest against RBM as the mine closed for the day. Picture: Siyanda Mayeza

Mining giant Rio Tinto’s troubled subsidiary, Richards Bay Minerals (RBM), closed on Friday after fresh protests by the KwaMbonambi community in the wake of the assassination of a local youth leader and his cousin two weeks ago.

The protests are set to continue tomorrow as community attitudes harden towards the company, which many locals hold responsible for the murder of the two young men by hit squad.

Pearl Nhlenyama, the secretary of the community youth committee at KwaMbonambi, said they would continue protesting until RBM addressed the killings.

Nhlenyama said that the company had “ignored” the murder of committee member Thokozani Mbika (33) and his cousin Ndoda Mbika (36).

The two were riddled with AK-47 and 9mm bullets on Sunday, July 31, at Thokozani’s home in Mankwathini, a village close to the mine. Thokozani had been involved in a two-day protest the week before which had stopped production at the mine.

People who are benefiting from RBM and who want us to stop protesting are behind these murders. RBM needs to take this seriously

He was to have chaired a meeting to discuss further protests on the day he was killed.

Thokozani’s killers – who shot Ndoda after mistaking him for Thokozani’s activist brother – left a note threatening the lives of youth and other community leaders involved in protests – aimed at forcing RBM to employ more locals and give them contracts – if they continued demonstrating.

“We cannot sit and do nothing when our community members are being killed. People who are benefiting from RBM and who want us to stop protesting are behind these murders,” said Nhelenyama.

“RBM needs to take this seriously. One more death and this company is leaving. We all are afraid that we are going to be the next to be killed; we have to do something.”

Heavily armed riot police spent most of Friday in skirmishes with community members, who gathered at the intersection leading to RBM to demand that the company’s management meet them.

Police had earlier cleared a number of barricades made from trees, rocks and burning tyres which community members had erected to block the Dune Route road to the mine – located in the Sokhulu and Mbuyazi tribal authorities – which employs 2 000 full-time and 2 000 contract workers.

RBM staff arriving for the 7am shift were turned back because of the blockades, while administrative staff operated from its offices in the Richards Bay central business district as they had been informed of the intention to protest by community leaders who had attended a meeting to discuss the killings.

Shortly after 10am, police forced community members, who had gathered in an open space next to the road, to disperse despite the fact that they were no longer blocking the road. Community members burnt another barricade in the road, after hearing that RBM management would not be coming to address them. Police fired tear gas at the protesters and swept through shops and houses at the roadside in efforts to arrest them. The protesters fled, but promised to return to continue demonstrating.

RBM community relations manager Fundi Dlamini said that mine operations had halted and blamed “a small group of people” from the community.

She said they had assigned a task team to manage the situation, and would “endeavour to ensure that the safety of our employees is never compromised”.

Dlamini said that negotiations with the community – which had taken place in a forum convened by then economic development MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu earlier this year – were ongoing and that RBM had approached the minister for an urgent meeting.

“RBM remains of the firm belief that all our engagement with stakeholders should be guided by the appropriate existing structures,” said Dlamini.

Mabuyakhulu was succeeded by Sihle Zikalala in June, following a Cabinet reshuffle. Premier Senzo Mchunu was replaced by Willies Mchunu.

Bheko Madlala, Zikalala’s spokesperson, said the MEC “remains committed to finding a lasting solution to the conflict at KwaMbonambi”.

“We need to make sure that we find a solution which accommodates the needs of both the community and the company,” he said.

However, Madlala was unable to say when the process would be restarted.

Adding to this is tribal conflict. Lulama Cele Boughey, of the Free KwaMbonambi Campaign, has been lobbying for a resolution to an impasse over the Mbuyazi chieftainship. The dispute has prevented RBM from paying R30 million in land claims to the community as control of the settlement must be run through a trust overseen by the sitting chief.

She told City Press that the resolution of the tribal conflict was “essential” to ease tensions in the area.

In 2009, then Premier Zweli Mkhize deposed Inkosi Sibusiso Mbuyazi, replacing him with his cousin Mkhanyiseni. Sibusiso died, but his widow, S’thembile, has successfully gone to the high court to secure the right to claim the chieftainship on behalf of her minor son, Photokuhle.

The premier continues to defend the action brought by S’thembile. In the meantime the money, which is being held in trust by RBM, accumulates at R1.5 million a year. Three neighbouring communities, which also host RBM, have each been paid out a lump sum of R15.5 million, and each get paid R3 million a year.

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