24 March 2016

South Africa: The Mining Company Behind the Xolobeni Conflict Has a History of Dodgy Dealings

Photo: John GI Clarke/GroundUp
Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe negotiates with police officers in 2008. (Photo from John GI Clarke's Facebook page.)

The killing of Amadiba Crisis Committee chairperson, Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe has placed an Australian mining company and a longstanding mining conflict in the limelight. STUART LEWIS reports that the conflict has a long, violent history and a number of unsavoury players.

On the night of 22 March, Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe opened his front door for two men who claimed to be police officers. The men had arrived in a white VW Polo with a blue rotating light on its roof. They shot Rhadebe at least eight times in front of his wife and son, who are both now in hospital, before driving away.

The assassination of Rhadebe has garnered national media attention, especially since he was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC). ACC has been embroiled in a longstanding battle with Mineral Commodities Ltd (MRC), an Australian mining company, over MRC's ongoing attempts to mine sections of coastal dunes in the Xolobeni area along the Eastern Cape coast.

The battle has divided the local amaPondo community harshly. On one side stand those who want to see the mine built, led largely by a local man called Zamile Qunya who works for mining empowerment company Xolco and Chief Lunga Baleni of the Amadiba Tribal Authority. On the other are those who want the land to stay in local hands, like the ACC. It has also seen increasingly escalating incidents of violence and intimidation, generally directed towards mining opponents.

The history of violence goes back as far as 2003 when Mandoda Ndovela, a headman from Mpindweni on the Wild Coast, was shot dead, allegedly for being openly critical of the Xolobeni Mineral Sands plan and includes multiple incidents of intimidation and actual physical violence. Last year December, anti-miners were attacked with pangas and knobkerries and in February this year, Chief Baleni threatened residents with violence if they attempted to stop drillers who ultimately failed to arrive.

The Xolobeni Mineral Sands development, and the chaos wrought around it, has also resulted in a book called The Promise of Justice and an award-winning documentary called The Shore Break.

Rhadebe's assassination is only the latest incident in the Xolobeni saga. And, as it turns out, this isn't even the only mining debacle MRC and its executive chairperson Mark Caruso have been involved in.

On the east coast of South Africa, near the town of Vredendal, MRC runs a zircon mine called Tormin Mineral Sands. Multiple accusations of environmental degradation and breaches of mining regulations, including causing the collapse of a cliff onto a nearby beach and pumping raw sewage into the ocean, have been levelled against Tormin. They have also been accused of degrading roads by sending trucks along ones that do not form part of their allocated route and of expanding the mine beyond its permit.

Tormin's general manager Gary Thompson has also been accused of ordering security guards to fire on a helicopter hovering over the mine, over which a criminal case has been opened. Thompson has also been accused of orchestrating unfair and illegal wage cuts and working hours, and of racism and sexism towards employees. He allegedly tells workers that when they enter the mine, they are in Australia and when they leave, they are in South Africa.

Meanwhile Caruso, who runs MRC, has been accused of threatening workers in an internal email, that includes a quote of the Samuel L Jackson version of Ezekiel 25:17 from Pulp Fiction, where he states: "I am enlivened by [the] opportunity to grind all resistance to my presence and the presence of MSR [the South African subsidiary of Mineral Commodities] into the animals [sic] of history as a failed campaign."

Caruso's UK-listed company Allied Gold has also been implicated in intimidation and illegal mining practices in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

*Editors' note: When The Daily Vox called the MRC South African office for comment, we were directed to Thompson's personal number. We were told he was in a meeting and that we should call back in 20 minutes. Since then, we have been unable to reach them. This article will be updated with MRC's comments as soon as possible.

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