Richards Bay terminal. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Richards Bay terminal. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Rio Tinto’s Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) mine, which was forced to close down two weeks ago due to violent attacks on workers, will resume production on Monday, KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala said on Wednesday.

The RBM mine is a subsidiary of the multinational Rio Tinto and employs more than 5,000 workers. It mines and exports titanium dioxide slag, which is used to create ingredients for products such as paint, plastics, sunscreen and toothpaste.

Rio Tinto pledged R6.5bn in investment during the recent investment summit, which would essentially expand this facility five-fold. In a statement last week, the company threatened to close down the mine and withdraw its pledge if the forced shutdown at RBM did not end.

This could result in the loss of the 5,000 full-time and contract jobs and the thousands more envisaged in the planned expansion.

President Cyril Ramaphosa asked Zikalala to resolve the problem and get the quarrelling sides to the table to find a lasting solution.

This resulted in Wednesday’s meeting, which was attended by the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government, Rio Tinto, trade unions and the various factions within the Richards Bay communities.

Zikalala led a team of MECs that held a series of meetings, first with Rio Tinto executives, including officials from the multinational’s London headquarters, and with the RBM mine management led by MD Werner Duvenhage.

On Wednesday afternoon they met with all the other stakeholders, including trade unions,  local community representatives, local traditional leaders, the police and local businesses at Umhlathuze Municipality’s civic hall.

After the meetings Zikalala told journalists that all the stakeholders had agreed that operations at the mine should resume. 

“Our government is duty-bound to protect the property and facilities of the investors. This is also to protect jobs and future investments,” he said, adding that news of disturbances spread fast among investors, creating a negative perception.

Zikalala added that government officials will hold an imbizo with local communities to explain the situation at the mine. He said his government had assured the mine owners that their investments were safe in KwaZulu-Natal. 

Bheki Noel, RBM’s stakeholder manager, said the RBM management was forced to close the mine to protect its workforce after two of them were injured by unknown gunmen who shot randomly at buses and taxis ferrying workers to the mine.

Muzi Zakwe, regional leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), said the safety of workers was paramount. “We are concerned about the violence that has been perpetrated against some of the workers. The forced shutdown will affect workers for a very long time. This is sad because this issue was beyond the control of the workers.”

Mduduzi Mhlongo, the mayor of the City of uMhlathuze, said if the mine were to close it would take the town more than 25 years to recover economically.

The Zululand Chamber of Commerce echoed these sentiments, urging local communities, businesses, the provincial and national government to work together to end the impasse.