Attempts to resolve the conflict which has forced Richards Bay Minerals (RMB) to close took a heavy blow on Wednesday when a local leader was shot dead shortly after meeting with KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala.
Meshack Mbuyazi was gunned down while getting into his car about 30 minutes after attending the meeting, called by Zikalala to try and end the impasse in the KwaMbuyazi community at Richards Bay, where the RBM mine and smelter are located.
The mine, which employs 5 000 people, has been closed since workers were shot at on November 15, the latest in a series of incidents sparked by a dispute within the Mbuyazi clan over the chieftainship.
Mbuyazi had led a delegation on behalf of Sithembile Mbuyazi, the widow of deposed Inkosi Sibusiso Mbuyazi to the talks called by Zikalala.
Her husband’s half brother, Mkhanyiseni Mbonambi, was installed as inkosi by then Premier Zweli Mkhize in 2010 to replace Sibusiso, who died in 2015.
His removal sparked a lengthy court battle by his widow for her right to represent her minor son in his claim for the chieftaincy, which she took to the Constitutional Court and won.
The contestation has delayed the payment of a land claim to the clan, one of four in the area, who each received R17.5-million from RBM in 2009.
The other clans have also received R3-million a year since, with the Mbuyazi money being held in trust by the company pending the resolution of the dispute.
Protests have forced the company to repeatedly close its doors, while two community members were gunned down in 2016 after their youth organisation was warned to halt their protests by a local business forum.
An RBM manager involved in investigating charges against senior staff at the company, Ronny Nzimande, was also murdered.
No arrests have been made in connection with any of the killings.
Last year, then premier Willies Mchunu appointed an administrator, Martin Mbuyazi, and RBM released around R70-million for community projects, in an unsuccessful bid to calm the tensions.
The mining company, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, has halted operations at the mine, which is one of the biggest employers in Richards Bay, and has also put on hold work on a new R6.5-billion mine, Zulti South. Unions operating at the mine have called on the national government to intervene and halt the conflict before the company closes its doors permanently.
Zikalala’s spokesperson, Lennox Mabaso, said they had been shocked by the news of the killing as they felt progress had been made at the meetings with all the concerned parties in the area.
Mabaso said that the Premier would hold and urgent meeting with the community to Sunday to try and restore calm in the area.
On Wednesday, Zikalala told the media he was hopeful that the mine would be able to reopen “soon”.
However, the killing of Mbuyazi, who according to community members had been pushing for reconciliation between the two clan factions, is likely to delay this.
Community sources said Mbuyazi, who is a contractor working with RBM, had led the delegation on behalf of Sithembile Mbuyazi, who did not attend because she feared for her life.
Mbuyazi had, according to a participant in the meeting who was afraid to be named, suggest to Zikalala that the family be allowed to find a solution to the chieftainship dispute, which the province should then endorse.
“The family wants to find a solution, which is a process that has been supported by his majesty [King Goodwill Zwelithini], rather than going back to court again and again. The province created this situation when it removed Inkosi Sibusiso. It now needs to allow this issue to be resolved traditionally,” he said.
“The fact that somebody can be killed when the premier is here tells you how serious this situation is. This place is dangerous. More people are going to die if this is not solved soon,” he said.
Sithembile Mbuyazi told Mail & Guardian she had not attended the meeting as she was afraid she would be killed if she did so.
“I cannot attend. It is not safe for me to do so,” she said.
She said she had decided not to go back to court to enforce her son’s right to the chieftainship, despite being given the right to do so by the Constitutional Court, as she wanted the matter resolved quickly.
“It is my right to go to court, but if I do it will drag things out for years. It is up to the Premier now to do the right thing and appoint me as regent on my son’s behalf. We have suggested a traditional solution to this, which His Majesty endorses, rather than a long court process,” she said.
A company spokesperson said: “We are grateful for the ongoing support from the KwaZulu-Natal Premier as we continue discussions with local communities, trade unions, regional and national government.”
“RBM is assessing the situation on the ground and will return to normal operations when it is safe and sustainable to do so. The safety of our employees is our number one priority.”
Attempts to secure comment from South African Police Service had not been successful at the time of writing.