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Community at odds over lucrative sand mining deals

Conflicts are arising between traditional leaders and community activists in eMthunzini on the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) north coast over a lucrative mining deal.

At the centre of the schism is control of the proceeds of a community trust worth over R8 million a year, paid by mining group Tronox Sands. This is part of Tronox Sands’ corporate social investment for a sand mining and smelting operation called the Fairbreeze Project. The battle also includes the fierce contestation for control of a procurement committee.

Speaking to Mukurukuru Media, community activist Mvuseni Mkhize paints a picture of a community gripped by fear and loathing following what appears to have been an assassination attempt of a community leader, Phiwe Mthembu, last year.

Mthembu was ambushed and shot near the Fairbreeze mine headquarters in July after he had allegedly met amakhosi and demanded the inclusion of ordinary residents in the procurement committee.

“The Fairbreeze project involves six traditional leaders. They are all representing their respective communities and are allocated funds by Tronox and kept in different community trusts. The funds, which are for land damage and CSI initiatives, varies depending on the size of the traditional authority.

“Since inception, the funds have been mismanaged and the working of the trusts are characterised by secrecy. Most villagers do not know that there are funds due to them because their traditional leaders refuse to be accountable to the people,” says Mkhize.

He says the amakhosi have also appointed their children, relatives and children of politicians to form part of the procurement committee. The committee is the key decision-making body determining who should be awarded lucrative Tronox contracts.

“The traditional leaders are monopolising the committee as their personal property. They are abusing their powers as heads of their respective committees and appointing their close associates to be part of the committee. Most of the people holding key positions in the committee are not even from the area or any of the traditional authorities concerned,” says Mkhize.

However, Bright Mncwango, speaking on behalf of the amakhosi, disputes the claims by Mkhize.

“This is part of a concerted effort by the so called activists who are hired to destabilise the generous efforts of amakhosi. The traditional leaders are servants of the people and represent their communities in good faith.

“There is no favouritism or nepotism of any sort in the procurement committee. Representatives are democratically elected by residents of the different tribal authorities. In addition, the amakhosi only play an advisory role in the community trust and do not dictate how funds should be used,” says Mncwango.

Mkhize’s allegations, however, were corroborated by Mthembu, a low key businessman and community leader of the eMacekane village near Empangeni who says those who are viewed as opponents of the amakhosi were targeted and threatened with death.

“In my case, the hitmen were hired to kill me after I had raised many questions about the composition of the people in the procurement committee. I was particularly concerned that fictitious names were submitted as community representatives in the trust thereby side-lining genuine community members. Children of amakhosi are also benefiting in the community trust, this is grand scale corruption,” says Mthembu.

Provincial police spokesperson, Captain Nqobile Gwala confirmed the attempted murder of Mthembu.

“We cannot say if it was an assassination attempt or not. A charge of attempted murder was opened with the local police cluster and the case docket is with the provincial detectives for further investigation,” says Gwala.           

The traditional authorities under scrutiny are Mkhwanazi, eMacambini, Dube, Nzuza, Somopho and Ogagwini. The authorities cooperated together and gave green light to the mining of sand dunes in the titanium rich eMthunzini sands.

The project, estimated to be generating billions worth of profit annually for Tronox shareholders, was not without controversy. It was halted for more than four years after environmentalists and residents who run tourism and ecotourism businesses opposed the mining on grounds that it would cause environmental degradation and deal a heavy blow to local economic development.

The project was subsequently given a go ahead by the Department of Minerals and Energy and supported by amakhosi.

The northern KZN coastal areas has been hit by a mining boom which has been cited as the trigger of violent and deadly clashes between the communities and their traditional leaders over evictions and riches accompanied by these mining deals.

Mary de Haas, violence monitor and researcher says there were many negatives associated with mining in the northern KZN region.

“In coal mining areas such as Somkhele near Mtubatuba, the rate of respiratory illnesses is extremely high and linked by locals to most deaths. In the KwaMzimela area homes and graves are blasted away by sand mining. There are many other examples and despite the black empowerment rhetoric, it may be white business people who benefits from trust deals,” says de Haas.

Tronox didn’t respond to queries at the time of publication. – Mukurukuru Media

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