KZN Premier Willies Mchunu has intervened and directed Provincial Police Commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi to deal decisively with the criminal elements threatening investments in the province. File picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/ANA
Durban - KwaZulu-Natal is on the verge of losing a multimillion rand mining operation after the owners of Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) threatened to close its mining site in a Zululand town if “criminal elements” that have threatened operations are not dealt with.

RBM, which is partly owned by the mining giant Rio Tinto, has faced labour challenges from disgruntled contracted workers who have embarked on an illegal strike, demanding better pay.

The workers are employed through labour broker Unitrans/Ubunye Logistics.

Since last month there has been an escalation of theft and violence at the mine, culminating in the murder of 34-year-old RBM security officer Vusi Mhlenyane.

This prompted RBM management to stop operations.

At the weekend, KZN Premier Willies Mchunu intervened and directed Provincial Police Commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi to deal decisively with the criminal elements threatening investments in the province.

Thousands of jobs are at risk after Rio Tinto told provincial government on Thursday last week that it was on the verge of permanently pulling out of the RBM operation due to safety concerns and escalating costs.

In a strongly-worded statement, Mchunu called on the police to deal decisively with the “criminality” causing the crisis.

He directed Mkhwanazi to investigate why the police in the area had failed to investigate cases.

He said the police should focus their spotlight on those launching attacks on RBM, from an area known as “Marikana”. The Marikana site is allegedly being used to launch attacks on RBM vehicles to block the road to RBM, and to attack other road users and workers.

Mchunu also directed the police to assist the company in enforcing the interdicts it has against those interfering with its operations.

“RBM is the largest taxpayer in KwaZulu-Natal, contributing R1.3 billion in taxes in 2017.

“It spends R4.8bn on procurement, with R360 million spent on communities. The organisation contributes 3.4% to the GDP of KwaZulu-Natal, and employs over 4500 people.

“Even more people rely on RBM’s supply chain.

“We will use enforcement to ensure stability returns.

“We will not allow those who are thirsty for blood to destroy our economy.

“We will fight violence and instability with all our might,” he said.

Bold Baatar, Rio Tinto’s chief executive of Minerals and Energy based at their London headquarters, who flew to Richards Bay last week, said Rio Tinto’s board was considering ceasing operations altogether in Richards Bay.

Under threat

“We will not run a site unless people are safe. We will not risk people’s lives to run RBM,” he said.

He said the RBM’s smelter, the largest and only kind in the world, is complex and cannot be turned on and off.

“If the smelter stops, it is destroyed for good. If this happens, RBM will close. It will take me another 18 months or so to build this kind of smelter. Every time the road closes, we put RBM at risk. If this continues it is likely the end of RBM,” said Baatar.

Baatar called for the government’s urgent intervention.

“Current contractor protests at RBM have resulted in at least 26 days of no production already since January. The stoppages since April this year have already affected South Africa’s reliability as a supplier of ilmenite. At the moment, RBM supplies a 25% share of the ilmenite global market,” said Baatar.

Martin Mbuyazi, the administrator of the KwaMbonambi Community Trust, one of the shareholders in RBM, said the law must be enforced.

“All engagements (with disgruntled staff) have been made. For a mine to be under threat of closing down is quite serious. That will affect not only the mine but also the community and the economy of the country.

“RBM is one of the biggest operations for Rio Tinto in the whole world and for such a big operation to close down because of barbaric behaviour of our people is unconscionable; this will scare away much-needed investments,” he said.

The police were not immediately available for comment.

The Mercury