'It's impossible to run our business': Rio Tinto shuts KZN operation amid bloodshed

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Richards Bay Minerals has a minerals sands operation. Picture: Siyanda Mayeza
Richards Bay Minerals has a minerals sands operation. Picture: Siyanda Mayeza

Rio Tinto Group declared force majeure on customer contracts at Richards Bay Minerals after escalating violence forced it to suspend activity at the minerals sands operation in South Africa.

Managing Director Werner Duvenhage said the company is prioritising the safety of its 5 000 workers at RBM, which exports titanium dioxide slag, used to create ingredients for products including paint, plastics, sunscreen and toothpaste. The closure of Rio’s only South African business follows the death last month of RBM manager Nico Swart, who was shot on his way to work.

"It has become impossible for us to run the business," Duvenhage said by phone. "We won’t go back until it's safe for our people."

The suspension of operations at RBM is a blow to the South African government’s efforts to attract new investment to the country. Violence around RBM forced the operation to shut temporarily in 2019, with work subsequently halted on a $463 million (~R6.6 billion) expansion project.

In recent weeks, mining equipment and infrastructure have been destroyed and access roads blocked. South African mining operations are frequently dogged by community protests, which relate to issues ranging from poor municipal services to labor conditions. Duvenhage said there have been reports that the latest violence may be connected to youth unemployment.

RBM’s furnaces are currently being run on low power as they can’t be shut down completely. The company is engaging with both regional and national governments to get a better understanding of the cause of the violence, Duvenhage said.

South Africa’s mines and energy ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Bloomberg.

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