Two activists have been murdered at Mpembeni near Richards Bay on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast in a spate of apparent assassinations, which residents say are linked to tensions over their land.
Geshege Nkwanyana and Ntuthuko Dladla were shot dead while returning to the area — about 4km from eSikhawini township — from work on Tuesday and Friday last week.
Nkwanyana, the chairperson of the local youth structure, and Dladla, a firefighter who was involved in the local small business forum, had been active in a campaign last year to prevent residents being moved to make way for a prospecting operation.
Residents are not sure whether the killings are related to this failed attempt to move them.
Another possibility is that the killings are linked to the ongoing clashes at Richards Bay Minerals (RBM), whose mine is close to Mpembeni, also known as KwaDube.
Nkwanyana, an electrical subcontractor for RBM, was singled out by the killers from a group of colleagues he was travelling with and shot dead. Dladla, who worked for the uMhlathuze municipality, was shot in his car while driving home in the early hours of Thursday morning.
“We are scared for our lives,” a local tribal council member said on Tuesday night. “Right now every house in this area is dark, closed. People are scared to open their doors. Some of us are in hiding. I have had to leave my house and rent a flat in town because I am not safe. There are people who are moving around here with guns. They are looking for me and other people up and down. Somebody is paying them for this.”
The council member, who asked not to be named, said Dladla and Nkwanyana had participated in meetings held last year to discuss plans by a mining company to move residents off their land. They had also been active in local anticrime initiatives and other issues. “They were the kind of people who were helping the community, protecting the rights of people who were being abused by others.”
He said the mining company had approached the tribal authority saying it wanted to prospect for oil and minerals on the land.
“Those people came here and said they wanted permission to drill and that we would be moved to Richards Bay. The inkosi consulted the community. The community was against what those people were saying and directed the inkosi and indunas to call those people because we wanted to tell them ourselves that we are not going to move. We haven’t heard from them since that day,” he said.
“We are farming here. We have plenty of sugar cane, madumbis, bananas and other fruits growing here. We have businesses, fishing. We have cattle. If they start drilling here, the water table is going to be polluted and our cattle will die.’’
The council member said that residents were worried that should drilling start, crime would continue to escalate. “Since mining came to this area people have been killing each other because of money. We are worried that this could be linked to the violence at RBM,” he said.
Violence monitor Mary de Haas said she had contacted South African Police Service (SAPS) management and Parliament’s mineral resources portfolio committee about the killings.
Other than hearing about the meeting between the inkosi and a mining company, she was unable to find evidence of any application for a mining or drilling license.
De Haas said SAPS at eSikhawini had agreed to step up patrols in the area but she said this would not help “because of the nature of the killing”.
“It seems that trained hitmen, who keep people under surveillance and know their movements, have been brought into the area.”
Economic Freedom Fighters MP Phillip Mhlongo has also written to SAPS management requesting intervention at Mpembeni. He also wrote to Parliament alleging that the violence was associated with removals because of “oil drilling interests”.
Thami Ngidi, spokesperson for KwaZulu-Natal Premier Willies Mchunu, said they did not believe the killings were linked to RBM. “We have not received any reports in that direction.”
He did not respond to later requests for comment about the possible link between the eviction rumours and the killings.
The RBM plant, which has been affected by a wildcat strike by sub-contracted workers, was closed last week after a security official, Vusi Mhlenyane (34), was murdered last Monday.
At the weekend Mchunu, economic development MEC Sihle Zikalala and acting provincial SAPS commissioner General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi announced a security plan to assist in re-opening the plant.
The mine’s owner, Rio Tinto, had threatened to close the mine permanently should the violence continue.
In 2016, two people from KwaMbuyazi, one of the tribal authorities where RBM is mining, were assassinated. An RMB manager, Ronnie Nzimande, was gunned down at his Richards Bay home during the same period. Earlier this year the local ANC branch secretary, Sifiso Mlambo, was shot dead by assassins.
No arrests have been reported for any of the killings.
Ngidi said Mchunu was happy with progress since last week.
“The premier is pleased that the situation is now returning to normal following swift intervention by provincial government and swift action by the police since last week,” Ngidi said.
But workers from two engineering companies contracted by RBM said they had been pulled out of the area last week and were still waiting to return to work.
“The big bosses decided to keep us off site until the situation calms down. We’re sitting at home,” said one worker, who asked not to be named.
SAPS management had not responded to queries from the Mail & Guardian at the time of writing.