At least 25 people have been killed in two years as battle over an alleged oil exploration project rages on.

Skhumbuzo Ncube is living life on the run after four of his relatives, including a two-year-old child, were massacred by unknown assassins in what is believed to be part of an ongoing feud over a proposed oil refinery project.

Ncube together with his younger sister miraculously escaped death during the attack eight months ago by crawling between the gushing flames and escaped after the alleged assassins stormed the house, shot the occupants, and set the house alight.

Now terrified villagers of eMpembeni on the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) north coast believe they will never get justice for the spate of sporadic murders that have rocked their village for more than five years and seen many residents displaced.

Breaking his silence for the first time after the ordeal, Ncube tells Mukurukuru Media that the attack has left him shaken.

“I barely sleep at night, I can steal hear the sound of the guns and the voices screaming for help. I still don’t know how my sister and I made it out alive. After the killing, I’ve been on a run fearing that these people might come after me,” he says.

Ncube says he believes the attack was orchestrated by the backers of the oil exploration project allegedly proposed by mining giant Rio Tinto through its subsidiary, Richards Bay Minerals (RBM).

The company has in the past disputed there is any proposed oil project in the area. This is in contrast with claims by residents that a delegation comprising surveyors and geologists had visited the village at one stage to take aerial photographs, telling the villagers that oil drilling was planned for the area.    

“I was born and bred in the area and there’s never been this kind of violence in our village, even during the rise of political tensions. Things started to take a nasty turn when our area became frequent with people from abroad surveying the land. We were subsequently summoned into a meeting by the traditional council and made aware that an oil refinery was earmarked for eMpembeni. We were told that certain homes would have to relocate because of this project,” says Ncube.   

He adds his uncle Muntu Khawula and his cousin are among the fierce opponents of the removal of the community to make way for the oil deal.

“My cousin chose to flee to Johannesburg after receiving numerous death threats. Their ambition to get my uncle permanently removed from the community was eventually successful when they murdered him in cold blood,” Ncube says.

Khawula was among the four victims of the Ncube family who were murdered on 10 May last year. Shortly after the massacre, police swooped on Mxolisi Mjadu (23) who was arrested and linked to the murders.

About 25 people have been killed in the village since 2017 for their alleged resistance to the oil project and the eviction of residents. The onslaught is believed to be targeted at community activists in order to silence them and instigate an atmosphere of fear within the village.

Between July and September last year, four activists were ambushed and killed. Keke Ngwane a vocal community member was ambushed and killed while at a shopping mall.

Prior to that, activists Ntuthuko Dladla, Khayelihle Ncube, and Mkheshekheshe Nkwanyane were also killed in a period of a month. Ndoda Ngcobo who had led a march opposing the removal of residents also came in close contact with death when he was ambushed by gunmen but fled on foot.

While the KwaDube traditional council denies knowing any details surrounding the oil project in their area, the climate of fear and mistrust continues in the village with the number of people killed rising.

“The role of traditional leadership is to fight side-by-side with the community. We will not allow any development that leads to the eviction of residents. The only project that the traditional council knows about and had permitted in consultation with the community is the expansion of RBM called Zulti South Project,” says KwaDube tribal council spokesperson, Nkosenjani Dube.

The R6.5 billion Zulti South Project, which will produce titanium and zirconium, was given green light in April last year after the plan was touted in 2003. It will see the expansion of Rio Tinto mining operations in Richards Bay.

Meanwhile, Mary de Haas, a KZN violence monitor and researcher has released a report: The Ingonyama Trust: ‘Democracy’s Bantustan Legacy’. In it,she says that when traditional leaders sign agreements with mining companies they often disregard the wellbeing of their subjects.

“The traditional leaders give permission to the Ingonyama Trust to grant lease agreements regardless of the consequences for their subjects. The people often do not know about the agreements until they are told to move as in eMpembeni.

“The democratic government which claims to represent the people has dealt rural folk a further blow by passing legislation which will give even more powers to the traditional leaders to enter into such contracts,” de Haas notes in her report.   

Khanyisani Mkhungo, a rural rights activist who has been fiercely campaigning for the successful prosecution of the perpetrators behind the eMpembeni killings says at the heart of community woes is greed, driven by the traditional leadership and assisted by their connected politicians.

“The amakhosi  have turned against the people in pursuit [of] riches. Scores of innocent people have died in eMpembeni but we haven’t heard any prominent voice speaking against the killings. All we hear from authorities is that investors must be protected, what about ordinary people who can’t defend themselves. The question is who benefits in the people’s suffering? To add salt to injury, potential witnesses in the murders are terrified to testify and some are hunted down like wild animals and killed,” says Mkhungo.   

Mkhungo says that historically mining never benefits ordinary people, but instead leads to environmental implications for the villagers.

“Majority of villagers are given temporary jobs during the construction phase and they are abandoned after that. For true economic emancipation to take place, these mining companies should negotiate with land owners and not traditional leaders. However, the agreements should not lead to land dispossession.” 

RBM spokesperson Zanele Zungu has denied that an oil refinery was planned for eMpembeni, adding that respective traditional authorities are always consulted widely with communities whenever mining projects were planned for their areas.

“It is the company’s policy to consult the owners of the land whenever projects and mining were planned for traditional communities. Our consultations are always transparent and involved all stakeholders concerned. RBM has no plans to start any oil project in eMpembeni,” she says.         

Relatives Meshack and Justice Ngwane are facing multiple murder charges with regards to some of the killings. The uncle and nephew are alleged to be iinkabi [assassins] targeting community activists.

While Meshack is facing five counts of murder, he was released on bail earlier last year. His nephew is facing eight counts of murder and is behind bars.

Concerns about their successful conviction has however been raised following the mysterious disappearance of key witnesses in the cases and some community members fearing to testify against the alleged assassins.

Captain Nqobile Gwala, KZN police spokesperson says there is progress in the cases after a special police task team was dispatched in the area.

“These are complex cases and the police have made some major breakthroughs in arresting suspects who are believed to be key role players in these murders. Some of them are currently in the courts. We are also aware that some witnesses might be frightened to testify because of the nature of the situation. We are however addressing that,” says Gwala. – Mukurukuru Media