President Cyril Ramaphosa. REUTERS/ SIPHIWE SIBEKO
President Cyril Ramaphosa. REUTERS/ SIPHIWE SIBEKO

President Cyril Ramaphosa and minerals & energy minister Gwede Mantashe should directly intervene and defuse ongoing tensions and violence at the beleaguered Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) mine, the National Union of Mineworkers said Monday.

RBM is owned by multinational mining giant Rio Tinto, which has threatened to close the mine that employs about 5,000 workers. Rio Tinto has also threatened to hold back on a R6.5bn investment in RBM, which it had pledged during the Presidential Investment Summit late in 2019.

Titanium dioxide slag, which is mined at the Richards Bay operation, is in high demand as it is used to create ingredients for products such as paint, plastics, sunscreen and toothpaste. The cost of a recent temporary shutdown at the mine is still being tallied, but some economists have estimated it amounts to billions of rand in both salaries and loss of production.

The mine resumed operations two weeks ago after it was shut for more than a month after attacks on workers going to work.

The violence emanated from a multifaceted dispute that included a local traditional leadership squabble and another in which locals are demanding to be employed at the mine.

Just less than a week after resumption of work two employees, including a security guard, were shot and wounded inside the RBM mine. Police have since made an arrest and two people have appeared in court.

NUM regional secretary Mzi Zakwe said the situation cannot be allowed to persist, adding that his union is now calling on Ramaphosa and Mantashe to intervene with immediate effect.

“We understand that the KZN premier [Sihle Zikalala] has been trying his best to resolve this impasse. But the imbizo in which all the warring parties would have had a platform to express their views has not taken place. I think it is time that we escalate this matter further up and involve the president and the department of minerals & energy.

“Our workers are not feeling safe when they go to, or leave, work. There are just too many jobs on the line for our members and the local economy will suffer if this mine were to close down. In our memorandum last year we stated that bold steps need to be taken to bring this dispute to an end,” Zakwe said.

RBM says though it has been operating for the past two weeks production is not yet at an optimum level.

Bold Baatar, CEO of energy and minerals at Rio Tinto’s London headquarters, said in a statement the temporary closure had forced RBM to revise titanium dioxide slag production for 2019 downward to between 1.2-million tonnes and 1.4-million tonnes.

He said “the safety and security of our people is always our first priority” and commended the provincial and national government’s efforts in restarting the mine.

Zikalala’s spokesperson Mthatheni Mabaso told Business Day on Monday that the premier and officials from his office have been working behind the scenes in the past few weeks to find a lasting solution that would retain jobs at RBM and secure future investments from Rio Tinto in the province.

He said the premier will issue a statement on Tuesday on “a ground-breaking agreement reached between all parties to resolve the outstanding disputes”.