Johannesburg - It takes two hours to travel a 50km dirt road from the R61 main road connecting the KwaZulu-Natal south coastal boundary to the N2 highway to Xolobeni, a rural area in Mbizana Local Municipality, Eastern Cape, where the Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project is envisaged by Australia’s Mineral Commodities (MRC).
According to Statistics SA’s 2011 census, Mbizana’s 281 905 population is very young with 44 percent of residents under the age of 14 years, while 85 percent of the adult residents are unemployed and rely on government grants. Most residents live on R50 a day and subsistence farming helps others complement this income.
Xolobeni is 200km south of Durban, and is in desperate need of road infrastructure and basic services, which include running water and electricity, to fast-track economic development and eliminate poverty in the region.
Although Mbizana considers mining as one of the key pillars of its Integrated Development Plan, the future of the opencast operation to mine ilmenite, rutile and zircon on pristine sand dunes, hangs in the balance.
MRC’s South African subsidiary, Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources (TEM), has been dedicated to promoting the advantages of the mine, but it is lacking community buy-in.
Members of the Pondo nation are deeply divided over the proposed mine, which has manifested in intimidation and violence as tensions intensify as some oppose and others accept the mine.
Highlighting how explosive the situation has become, last month
Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Radebe, the chairman of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), was killed. The committee represents community members who are antimining and have been fighting the mining development for the last 10 years. They argue that tourism should be the mainstay of the economy in the coastal area.
Nonhle Mbuthuma of the ACC said the mine would not benefit the people. “Our strategy is to push hard so that the Department of Mineral Resources rejects the application and take the application back to Australia. Death is what the government wants. The government will either choose peace or the Australians because peace is in their hands and bloodshed is in their hands,” Mbuthuma said.
Also, the rift between the Pondo people and its Chief Lunga Baleni, the chairman of the Amadiba Traditional Authority and whom the company gave a 4X4 allegedly to fulfil his duties, runs deep.
A fuming Ntsizakalo Ngalo, an advisor to chief Baleni, called for the people from outside Xolobeni, including the media, to back off and stop sowing division.
“There are too many lies and propaganda, and we are saying please, there is no need for people to fight about the mining development. I want to appeal to you to back off as media.
“Most of people who are fuelling the violence are not from Xolobeni. The media is responsible for violence. Back off you foreigners get out of our place. We say white foreigners must leave.“
Ngalo was appointed by the Traditional Authority to mediate between the ACC and residents who support the mining.
“I went there to lead the reconciliation between the two parties. I advised the chief to allow me to go to the people. I advised him not to talk about this matter. After I visited the area, I came up with five recommendations concerning the mine.
“The ACC said they liked tourism and agriculture, and they were not happy about mining, but they are dividing the Mpondo people,” Ngalo said.
“I would not like to go deeper into the recommendations and be fooled by media. We agreed that we have stopped talking to the media until we get to premier Phumulo Masualle, King Zanozuko Sigcau and the Department of Mineral Resources to read the recommendations.”
He said the ACC was using Bazooka’s death to their benefit and that its white members were dividing the community.
“I don’t want people to use Bazooka’s death. Bazooka is the chief’s cousin, he was a peaceful man. Bazooka and I took mining people to the chief. The Australians never came back to the chief, but to certain individuals (who) are beneficiaries.”
Ngalo said the ACC tended to be antidevelopment and antigovernment.
“The people know nothing about the environment, they have been confused and infiltrated by forces from outside. The recommendations that I have made will expose the truth.”
Baleni, together with the headman of the area, Mzwandile Maraqana, became directors at Xolco, the TEM’s empowerment arm last year. Both Baleni and Maraqana became directors at TEM last year.
Ngalo said, as far as he knew, the chief was not a director of TEM. “Each and every person has personal issues. I can’t say yes and no, he never told me about this.”
Xolobeni has the 10th largest heavy mineral deposit in the world, according to the MRC website.
The area has a total resource of 346 million tons, containing 9.3 million tons of ilmenite. Together with rutile and zircon potential, with all products meeting market specifications, a pre-feasibility study indicates a roughly 25-year mine life.
Nitmba Shono, a headman in the area, has openly rejected the mine despite a promise by TEM, a MRC subsidiary, of community enlistment.
“We do not want a mine, we have relied on land for our livelihood. We won the land back from the apartheid government after the first democratic elections in 1994. When the mine comes, what happens to our land?” he said.
The community is proud that it is self-sufficient and does not need to buy mealie-meal, a staple food to many South Africans, and can grow their own crops, vegetables and fruit.
Traditional healers in Amadiba have added their voices to the mounting disapproval of the titanium mine.
Masawo Danci, a sangoma who has cattle, said the land was their only income.
“We have crops in this land. We are not poor: we grow mealies, we grow cabbages and bananas. I only buy oil and salt because I don’t have a seed. Even if we have bereavement in the family we can sell one of our cows to cover funeral expenses,” Danci said.
Zeka Mnyamana is one of the few residents to publicly support the mine and openly speak about it.
“The mine will change people’s lives for the positive, not negative. There will be better roads that will be built. The people will no longer drink water with cattle in the river because the mine will build communal taps,” Mnyamana said. “A woman gave birth to a baby in the bushes in December because clinics are far and transport is not easily available,” he said.
MRC said in its 2014 annual report that it maintained its perseverance in respect to its Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project and continued to complete all matters within its control to ensure this project moved forward to eventual development.
“The economic and social benefits of Xolobeni, including the upliftment of the local Amadiba population, still create a compelling case for its development and show beyond doubt that responsible mining can make a significant contribution to sustainable development.”
The company said the patience of the company’s shareholders should eventually be repaid through a prudent capital management policy, and the board would consider the payment of dividends at each reporting period, subject to the ongoing capital requirements of its operations.
In trying to rebuild its credibility, 22 Xolobeni residents work on the MRC-owned Tormin mining operation in the Western Cape.
“Not only does this employment provide direct economic benefit back to the Xolobeni community but provides a community educational process through hands-on involvement in a live mining project and assists significantly in countering negative lobbying against mining in Xolobeni.”