New protests over the Mbuyazi traditional leadership dispute and claims of corruption in a R75-million land claim payout have again forced the partial closure of Richards Bay Minerals (RBM), whose mines and smelter are located in the troubled tribal authority.
On Monday the Rio Tinto subsidiary was forced to halt night shift work and close two of its smelter furnaces because of the protests, which began about two weeks ago and have resulted in 13 schools in the area being closed due to a shutdown called by angry community members.
Residents blocked the roads into the area in the early hours of Monday morning with barricades and staged a march to the crossroads where the RBM smelter is located and were preparing for further protests on Tuesday.
The mining multinational is one of the biggest contributors to the Richards Bay economy and employs around 2 000 full-time workers and another 2 000 contractors, but its operations and proposed extension has been placed under threat by the dispute.
A number of residents have been killed, along with two RBM managers who were shot at their homes in apparent hits believed to be related to the conflict around the leadership — and a land claim payout made to the Mbuyazi chieftaincy and several others hosting the RBM mine.
The residents of the Mbuyazi traditional authority are demanding the recognition of Sithembile Mbuyazi, whose late husband Sibusiso was removed as inkosi by the cooperative governance and traditional affairs ministry in 2010.
They are also demanding an investigation into alleged corruption in the payout of damages caused to their land by the mine, which has been operating on land occupied by the Sokuhulu, Mbonambi/Mbuyazi, Dube and Mkhwanazi communities for more than 40 years.
Sibusiso Mbuyazi was replaced by his half brother, Mkhanyiseni, in 2010, by then member of the provincial executive committee for cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) Mike Mabuyakhulu, but went to court to appeal against his removal.
Sibusiso died before the matter could be finalised and his wife Sithembile then went to court to secure the right to take up the case on behalf of their minor son.
After a lengthy court battle, a mediator was appointed to secure an out-of-court agreement, but last year Mkhanyiseni went to court to secure an order confirming the 2010 removal of Sibusiso as chief.
Sithembile Mbuyazi did not contest the application and it was granted in her absence last June.
In March, Mkhanyiseni was appointed by KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala and introduced to the community, while the balance of a land claim of R74m, which had been held in trust by RBM due to the legal dispute, was released to a community trust.
However, residents have rejected the appointment of Mkhanyiseni and have again closed down access to the mine and the RBM smelter, along with all the schools in the kwaMbuyazi authority, after several failed attempts to have Zikalala address them.
One of the residents, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said that they had been demanding a meeting with the premier as they believed that Mkhanyiseni had not been properly installed and recognised by the House of Traditional Leaders and the Zulu monarch. This lack of authority was stalling development, the resident said.
“Mkhanyiseni Mbuyazi is without a recognition certificate as a king and nothing is happening. He can’t call a meeting or talk with any industry or businesses in Richards Bay. They are saying they don’t know or recognise him as he cannot produce any proof (of appointment as inkosi),” he added.
He said people had decided to block the roads and continue protesting — including closing schools — until the premier addressed them.
Last month residents wrote to Zikalala demanding that they receive their share of the funds paid to the trust and that he address them on this and the leadership issue.
In a letter to residents last week, Zikalala asked them to “use the established channels of communication to raise any issues”. The premier wrote that he had appointed a mediator to resolve the conflict between the two branches of the Mbuyazi clan, but emphasised that he had never agreed to appoint Sithembile as queen.
Zikalala wrote he had asked Cogta to assist in resolving the dispute while he had asked the department of economic development and tourism to investigate allegations of corruption in the compensation process. An independent legal firm has since been appointed to probe the claims of nepotism and corruption and was ready to start the process.
“Much work has been done to stabilise the area and create conditions for economic growth and employment. Let us all work together for the benefit of our communities,” Zikalala wrote.
On Tuesday his spokesperson, Gugu Sisilana, declined to comment and said that the matter was being dealt with by Cogta.
Cogta spokesperson Senzo Mzila said the department was not aware of any formal dispute over the Mbuyazi chieftaincy.
Mzila said the outcome of the court decision was a matter of public record and that the community was aware of this.
“The premier visited the community where he communicated the decision of the high court in regard to the dispute,” Mzila said.
Rio Tinto spokesperson Thembekazi Skenqa confirmed that production had been affected by the protests.
“Rio Tinto has taken the decision to reduce operations at its RBM operation in South Africa, following a deterioration in the security situation around the mine in recent days,” Skenqa said.
“To ensure the safety and security of its people, smelting activities have been reduced and all night-time haulage operations have been suspended. The safety and security of our people remains our topmost priority.”
Skenqa declined to comment on the company’s long-term response to the protests.