A titanic battle has been brewing in northern KwaZulu-Natal involving a predominantly white village, a poor black rural community and a multinational mineral-sands miner with a reportedly "atrocious" environmental record.
On the pristine coastline of Zululand, adjacent to the ecotourism village of Mtunzini, the mining of about 3000 hectares of mineral sands to extract metals such as zircon, ilmenite and rutile is expected to begin in 2014.
White, middle-class conservationists are at loggerheads with local amakhosi, who have received lucrative contracts from the mine's other operations, and black workers. The amakhosi describe the conservationists as being out of touch and say they want to maintain the status quo, where "tea girls" and "garden boys" are the order of the day in the village. The conservationists have rubbished the claim, and the mining company is adamant it will go ahead.
The minerals in the mine area, Fairbreeze, are believed to have a value of more than R25-billion. But, at its closest point, it is just 100m away from the village.
According to the mining company, Tronox Limited, which trades locally as Tronox KZN Sands, once the mine is fully operational, it will yield 190 000 tonnes of titanium dioxide ore and 60 000 tonnes of zircon over a 12-year period. This will entail operating 24/7, 365 days a year. It is estimated that the company will net profits of more than R1-billion a year from the site.
The minerals are used in a variety of everyday products such as paint, toiletries and cosmetics, ceramics, aircraft, tablet computers and cellphones.
Tronox believes if it doesn't mine the area, someone else will. It estimates its Fairbreeze operation will contribute R2.7-billion a year to the national gross domestic product and 99% of the finished products will be exported from Richards Bay harbour.
uThungulu district municipality's unemployment rate
The company also says that, if it doesn't mine Fairbreeze, it will need to shed more than 1 000 direct jobs and close its R1-billion smelter in Empangeni. The area will no longer benefit from the company's R300-million salaries bill, hundreds of millions of rands worth of services will be lost and the uThungulu district municipality's unemployment rate will increase by 0.4%.
But the Mtunzini Residents' Association contends that, according to 2011 figures, the mine paid R1.4-million in annual rates compared with the more than R12-million paid by the village.
The company, in several guises, began mining mineral sands in Zululand more than a decade ago outside eSikhawini, a township developed by the National Party in the late 1970s to provide labour for the then newly developing port town of Richards Bay. The mining site, known as Hillendale, stretches for about 9km and is expected to be shut down later this year.
Tronox maintains that the reason it built the smelter was simple – the investment was warranted because it would be able to mine Hillendale and then Fairbreeze.
Although the largely poor black eSikhawini residents offered little opposition to the mining of Fairbreeze, the white population of Mtunzini, represented by the Mtunzini Conservancy, reacted differently. The conservancy, a non-profit organisation, has argued against the mine for nearly a decade, repeating one fundamental point: Tronox was never required to undertake a full scoping report and an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the mine.
The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) and Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife have lodged similar objections.
The KwaZulu-Natal department of agriculture, environmental affairs and rural development allowed Tronox to submit a basic assessment report, the rationale being that Tronox had undertaken scientific studies and that a scoping report and EIA would simply be duplication.
Tronox, which has applied for a water-use licence for Fairbreeze, has defended its scientific evidence but the company is aware that undertaking a full EIA will delay the mining operations at Fairbreeze and could put its entire KwaZulu-Natal operation at risk.
Stacked against us
The conservancy's chairperson, Barbara Chedzey, said the perception that the "white town folk" were against the mine and against economic development of the black majority was incorrect.
"The playing field is so stacked against us. Any community against a big mine is uneven. The suggestion that, because we seek legal opinion and go to the courts, we are against the improvement of the rural people's lives is unfair. This is a deflection of the real issues," she said.
"We are against the mine in principle but accept that mining may have to take place; but then we believe it should not be in the current form."
Who is Tronox Limited?
United States-based Tronox Limited successfully filed for bankruptcy in 2009 after it could not afford to meet its operational obligations, which included more than $2-billion in environmental liabilities.
The company has distanced itself from these liabilities, blaming its former parent company, and is now seeking $25-billion in reparations in the US Bankruptcy Court, New York.
Tronox was formed in March 2006 after it was separated from US-based Kerr-McGee Corporation.
The separation or "spin-off" from Kerr-McGee resulted in Tronox taking the chemical business with a focus on the pigmentation industry and the environmental liabilities. Kerr-McGee kept the natural gas and oil assets, which it sold five months later for $16.5-billion to energy giant Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, which is currently exploring oil and gas reserves in Mozambique.
Tronox spokesperson Bud Grebey said the "environmental liabilities" being sought in the Anadarko lawsuit stemmed from operations that "were discontinued by Kerr-McGee prior to the spin-off of Tronox".
Despite denying liability, as part of its bankruptcy agreement, the company was still forced to pay the US Environmental Protection Agency $270-million in cash, as well as assets and bonds.
The settlement also included the fact that if Tronox successfully sued Anadarko, the EPA would receive 88% of the money won in the litigation.
Tronox emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in February 2011. It became involved in the South African mineral-sands market in June 2012, when it bought Exxaro's mineral-sands operations.
Tronox did not directly answer any questions, but submitted several documents outlining its position on various issues pertaining to its mining operations in Zululand.
In December 2011, Tronox threatened the conservancy and the Wildlands Trust with legal action, demanding that the environmental lobbyists stop peddling "false information", which it claimed was prejudicing the company, but there was no further action.
She said a proposed mixed development project in the village, the plans for which the Mail & Guardian has seen, could bring more than R1-billion of investment into the town and provide sustainable jobs, but that would be threatened if the mine goes head.
Mtunzini resident Steve Untiedt, who runs South Africa's oldest environmental education centre, Twinstreams, founded in 1952, said that tourism would never create the same amount of capital as mining. "Tourism may not bring the immediate big cash flows but ecotourism is long term and sustainable."
Twinstreams fears its water supply could be threatened because of two slimes dams that Tronox intends to build at the heads of the two rivers supplying the education centre. The dams will hold the fine discard remaining after the minerals have been extracted.
The conservancy claims Tronox has failed to rehabilitate the Hillendale mine adequately and therefore cannot be trusted, an allegation Tronox has denied.
The biggest defenders of the Fairbreeze mine are the six tribal authorities that surround Tronox's mining operations. They claim the mine will bring real employment opportunities and lift countless people out of poverty.
Hellbent on creating a volkstaat
The amakhosi spokesperson, Sam Mthembu, said the conservancy was "hellbent on creating a volkstaat" for the wealthy and that even the "Afrikaner doesn't support their ideology", claiming all the detractors were English.
"There isn't any development in Mtunzini; no banks, garages or big shopping centres. I told [conservancy members] they are old and treat the village as an old-age home. I told them if they want to stop the mine it will not happen – I told them their concern should be what the mine is to Mtunzini."
Mthembu's defence of Tronox is not surprising. The six amakhosi have been given the pick of at least a dozen contracts servicing the various sectors of the mining operation, including security, laundry, cleaning and scaffolding.
"We don't tender. We were told to choose contracts with low risk. We are also given specific contracts and asked to divide them among the amakhosi. Tronox has also bought the six amakhosi a farm. For our contracts, Tronox also provided all the equipment necessary to run the businesses," Mthembu said.
"If Tronox left, we would all be dead. We would go backwards. There would be armed robberies and such in the rural areas. Because of the mining operations, crime has dropped because the people are employed and working. Unlike the villagers of Mtunzini, we would starve. People must come first, not the environment."
The amakhosi control the areas of Somopho, Dube, Mkhwanazi, Ogagwini, Nzuza and Macambini, which stretch northwards from the Tugela River to Empangeni.
In a document submitted to the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Durban in support of Tronox in a recent appeal for an urgent interdict by the Mtunzini Conservancy to halt pre-mining operations at Fairbreeze, the amakhosi claim to represent 45 000 people, of which at least 65% are unemployed.
'Houses are cracking'
They claim the conservancy is "hellbent" on ensuring Tronox doesn't operate in Fairbreeze and the conservancy's members have a "total disregard for the plight and the aspirations of the majority next to the village". The document says nearly 400 rural people have jobs, thanks to Tronox, affecting 1 500 lives.
Last week the conservancy, which lost the application with costs, said it would appeal the judgment.
Although the majority of the poor community does not seem to be against Tronox mining, there have been many documented complaints from those living close to the Hillendale mine about homes being damaged, apparently because of the mining.
In February last year, the Hillendale community petitioned Tronox, complaining that their "houses are cracking and falling due to earthquakes" and that the dust was affecting their health. They also claimed the water table had increased, leading to damp in their homes.
Mthembu admitted that Tronox's operations near Hillendale had caused damage to nearby homes but said the company had committed R7-million to repair them and, in the case of mud structures, to build the owners new concrete structures.
Zandile Mbatha, a subsistence farmer who lives next to the mine, said the constant vibrations caused by heavy machinery had caused cracks in the walls of her home.
Mbatha has no electricity, despite a transformer for the mine being in her yard. She said the cracks had been "chalk marked" by Tronox but she was tired of their "promises". "I am tired of complaining and tired of them making promises but not keeping to them. They are skabengas [rascals]."
She said the company had promised to help her to complete the rondavel she was building but she eventually did it herself when they "never kept to their promise".
The Hillendale mine, when in full production, drew 26 megalitres (26-million litres) a day from the local water board. At Fairbreeze, this figure could grow to 48 megalitres a day.
Deputy Minister for Mineral Resources Godfrey Oliphant visited the Hillendale mining community in April last year and mediated a meeting between the community and Tronox. He told the M&G that 132 homes adjacent to the mine had been damaged and 61 would need to be completely rebuilt.
"Tronox said the damage wasn't their fault. We then instituted a geostudy to ascertain just what had caused the damages. Then towards the end of last year, Tronox said they would commit approximately R7-million, although this is an estimate, to fix and rebuild the homes. We are monitoring this process. We will, however, complete our study."
Oliphant said the proximity of residential houses to the Fairbreeze mine was also being looked at by the regional office.
Tronox's manager for planning and optimisation, Eben Scholtz, said "detailed investigations" were conducted by external experts who found "no evidence or suspicion that the mine's operations contributed negatively to the condition of the houses". The mine has also refuted any health claims.
"During the investigation it, however, became apparent that the dwellings were generally not in a good condition. The DMR [department of mineral resources] challenged KZN Sands to assist the community. As a responsible neighbour, we are not ignorant of the many challenges that the surrounding communities are facing," said Scholtz.
With the Fairbreeze mine appearing to be a dead certainty, the Fairbreeze Forum, originally made up of predominantly white Mtunzini businesspeople, is now talking to the mine to get the village the "best possible deal".
Its chairperson, Kevin Hartley, said they were not for or against the mine, but with the likelihood of it going ahead, they had to "make it work for the village".
"There are projects this village needs completed but there has never been the money for it. We are talking to Tronox, negotiating with them, to possibly finance these items, such as upgrading the town's sewer system and tourism facilities. We need to be talking."
Already the village, which suffers regular power failures, will benefit from a newly built 88kV power line with a distribution transformer dedicated to Mtunzini.
Furthermore, Tronox will build a 33km water pipeline from Hillendale to Fairbreeze that will, in the long run, secure water security for the village and its rural surroundings.
The Umlalazi municipality supports the mine. Its mayor, Thelamoya Zulu, said it "will be an economic and investment boost for the area", and the economy would not grow unless there is "investment and sustainable development".
According to the Statistics South Africa 2011 census, Umlalazi has a 35% unemployment rate with slightly less than 40% of the unemployed under the age of 34.
But at the heart of the mining issue is the eventual proximity of the operations to Mtunzini. At its nearest point, it will be 100m from an urban area. This parcel of land, known as Fairbreeze C extension, is subject to planning permission by the Umlalazi municipality.
The municipal town planning consultant, Coenraad Strachan, said, under the KwaZulu-Natal Planning and Development Act, the council was legally obliged to decide whether Tronox's application to have the land converted from agricultural use to mining should be allowed.
Tronox has said this area is a particularly large and rich deposit, containing 25% of the valuable minerals in the Fairbreeze area. It maintains that the economic viability of Fairbreeze mine rests largely on extension C, which will take up to four years to mine.
The company says it will completely rehabilitate the 230 hectare area, recreate habitat for "locally occurring red data species" and it will "provide further ecotourism opportunities and restore the status of Mtunzini as a conservation and ecotourism town".
But if mining goes ahead, nothing will be more affected than the residential Xaxaza Leisure Park, because mining will take place 100m from its boundary. Xaxaza has submitted an objection to the council, with a five-page petition.
Its owner, Merle Muller, said the park was a mixed development consisting of chalets, camp sites and cabins. It had a capacity for 300 people and currently had 85 residents aged between 60 and 80 years old.
"It just doesn't seem right that we have poured our lives into the business for 34 years and a mine is simply just allowed to operate on our border, which will likely close us down. We cannot fight Tronox in court but what right do they have to destroy our business?" asked Muller.