Deadly chieftainship feud is bleeding KwaMbonambi as over R30m remains in limbo

Sithembile Mbuyazi says she cannot return to KwaMbonambi, the site of Rio Tinto’s Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) mine, because of death threats. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Sithembile Mbuyazi says she cannot return to KwaMbonambi, the site of Rio Tinto’s Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) mine, because of death threats. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

‘I am not safe in the hands of this government. I have had to change my son’s school three times in one year. I am seen as a person who is blocking the pathway to wealth in this community. I am an obstacle that has to be removed.”

These chilling words from Sithembile Mbuyazi, the widow of deposed KwaMbonambi inkosi Sibusiso Mbuyazi, who died in 2015, are a reminder of how deadly the dispute over his chieftainship title has become — including who controls the clan’s share of a R66‑million land claim.

The dispute — which began after the death in 2005 of inkosi Mtholeni Mbuyazi, Sibusiso’s father — has delayed the payout of more than R30‑million in desperately needed development funding for the impoverished KwaZulu-Natal North Coast community.

Three other clans in the area received a R17.5‑million land claim settlement from Richards Bay Minerals in 2009 and an additional R3‑million a year since.

Sithembile Mbuyazi (32) has approached the courts to enforce her minor son Phatokuhle’s right to the title. The chieftaincy comes with a R150 000-a-year stipend from the claim and a share in a black economic empowerment deal linked to the clan’s mining rights.

Mbuyazi says she cannot return to KwaMbonambi, the site of Rio Tinto’s Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) mine, because of death threats. Many residents blame her for the delays in the release of the funding, which is destined for job creation and community development programmes.

“Even the policemen who were meant to protect me on visits to KwaMbonambi have told me they had been instructed to make sure I was killed. It is not safe for me or my son there,” she said.

Despite the backlash from the community and members of the Mbuyazi clan, she said she is determined to go ahead with her court action.

“This is not about me. It is about my son. I have to fight for his rights. If it were just me, I would have given up long ago. He is eight years old. I have to fight for him,” she said.

“There was no fair reason to remove my late husband from his rightful office. The only reason was that he was not prepared to be anybody’s stooge. I have a responsibility to make sure that justice is served and that my son’s heritage is protected.”

Mbuyazi has gone to the Constitutional Court in a last-ditch attempt to stop her late husband’s half-brother, Mkhanyiseni Mbonambi, from being installed in his place.

The lawfulness of her husband’s removal is a separate matter, which will be heard in the high court in Pietermaritzburg later this month.

Meanwhile, the traditional authority has been run by an administrator, Martin Mbuyazi, appointed by the KwaZulu-Natal premier.

The dispute also claimed the lives of two activists, Thokozani Mbika (33) and Ndoda Mbika (36), when a wave of protests blocked the RBM mine last year.

Thokozani Mbika belonged to a youth group that demanded jobs and a resolution to the impasse. But there was a backlash from businesspeople and contractors and a letter left at the murder scene threatened the youth group’s leadership with death, saying that “people” were tired of the disruption to the local economy.

RBM human resources manager Ronny Nzimande, who was chairing an internal inquiry into the alleged use of company resources to stoke the conflict, was also gunned down in the driveway of his home in nearby Richards Bay last year. No arrests have been made in connection with the killings.

Last month, trouble flared up again before the aborted decision by Premier Willies Mchunu to appoint Mbonambi as inkosi. 

Roads in and out of the RBM mine and smelter, which employ 2 000 full-time and 2 000 contract workers, were closed and schools were unable to function because of the blockade.

Tensions abated somewhat after an announcement that the appointment would be put on hold until the latest court battle was concluded.

The prolonged and bloody dispute began in 2005 after the death of Mtholeni Mbuyazi, who had nine wives. The clan met in August of that year and named Sibusiso, the eldest son of the inkosi’s first wife, MaJele, as the new chief. But Sibusiso’s half-brother, Mkhanyiseni Mbonambi, and other family members began agitating against him.

Mike Mabuyakhulu, then the provincial MEC for co-operative governance and traditional affairs, appointed a mediator, who ruled in favour of Mbonambi. As a result, then-premier Zweli Mkhize stripped Mbuyazi of his powers and appointed Mbonambi as inkosi in January 2010.

Mbuyazi secured an interdict against the appointment in the high court in Pietermaritzburg, stopping Mbonambi’s installation until the decision to strip him of this authority had been reviewed. He also went to court to have the Mbonambi Community Development Trust, which administers the land claim payout, fund his litigation.

In 2015, Mbuyazi died before the matter could be concluded. Sithembile Mbuyazi went to court to join her late husband’s court action and to secure the right to act as executor on behalf of their son.

The high court ruled against her. She then lodged an application with the Supreme Court of Appeal. It failed, and earlier this month she filed her application for leave to appeal to the Constitutional Court, where she will ask for a ruling confirming her right to ask for a review on behalf of her late husband.

The petition has been opposed by Mchunu and co-operative governance and traditional affairs MEC Nomusa Dube-Ncube.

In papers opposing her application, the co-operative governance and traditional affairs legal services head, Karl-Heinz Waldemar Kuhn, said the dispute had prevented the traditional council from functioning and was making the Mbuyazi community “restless and unsettled”.

He said the court should allow Mbonambi to be appointed and act while the matter of whether the widow could request a review on her late husband’s behalf is decided. Should the appeal succeed, Mbonambi could step down, allowing a regent to act until Phatokuhle comes of age, Kuhn said.

Co-operative governance and traditional affairs spokesperson Lennox Mabaso said Mbonambi’s appointment had been placed on hold until the matters before court had been concluded. In the interim, Martin Mbuyazi would continue to act as regent, he said.

Lawrence Dechambenoit, Rio Tinto’s Africa region head and vice-president for corporate relations, said the company would seek legal advice and follow due process.

RBM spokesperson Mpho Litha said the company was committed to working with the communities in which it operated.

“Our business operates with the highest standard of ethics, with our conduct guided not only by the law of South Africa but also by our strong values. This includes interactions and dealings with traditional authorities and the provincial government,” he said.

He declined to disclose how much money was being held in trust by RBM, citing privacy agreements.

Litha said the recent protests had cost the company and contractors two working days in lost production. But RBM was talking to stakeholders to “ensure a mutually beneficial working relationship going forward”.

Last week, lawyers for Mchunu and Dube-Ncube filed an application in the high court in Pietermaritzburg for an urgent hearing of the challenge to Sibusiso’s dismissal. The matter will be heard at the end of November. The court will rule whether the decision to remove him as heir apparent was lawful.

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