Perth’s Mineral Commodities is at the centre of a dispute in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.


Fatal extraction: Australian mining in South Africa
A Perth mining company, Mineral Commodities (MRC), is at the centre of a simmering conflict in South Africa, and has been accused of creating divisions and fomenting violence in an unspoilt and “idyllic” coastal community in the Eastern Cape.

At stake is a 22-kilometre-by-1.5-kilometre strip of red sand dunes on the pristine “wild coast”, which MRC says is home to the world’s 10th-largest heavy mineral deposit – minerals such as ilmenite, rutile and zircon, used to manufacture titanium dioxide pigments.

The company and its South African subsidiary, Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources (TEM), have prospecting rights for four out of five blocks in the strip. Mining rights previously held for the fifth and richest block were last year reversed on appeal, but the company in March applied to the Department of Mineral Resources for rights in all five blocks.


While MRC executive chairman Mark Caruso says “the majority of the community” want the mining because it will deliver over 600 jobs and huge social and economic benefits in an impoverished region, the lawyer for the villagers in or near the strip, Richard Spoor, tells another story.

He says they will not back down and, this being South Africa, “there will be police, there will be batons, there will be bloodshed” should the mining proceed.

In May, shots were fired and a 61-year-old woman was “grievously injured” with a bush knife in a confrontation between pro and anti-mining forces after a convoy of four-wheel-drives entered the village of Xolobeni and a neighbouring village.

Spoor, a well-known human rights lawyer who has represented miners with silicosis and asbestosis, says this is the tribal land of 200 or so families, occupied for centuries, with “sacred sites”, archaeological remnants and graves.

What the Australian company is proposing is the “moral equivalent of mining Ayers Rock for granite”, he says.

Their hope for the future – small-scale ecotourism – is already under a cloud and will be ruined by mining and associated infrastructure.

It’s a different kind of South African story, says Spoor, who is working with South Africa’s largest public interest law clinic, the Legal Resources Centre, on the case.

“Many removals are of people in poverty and squalor with grim lives to begin with, but this community is in a stunningly beautiful area,” he says.

“They live well and just wish to stay, and do what they’ve done all the time – fishing, crayfishing, and horse trails and small backpacker hostels – all of which are threatened by development.”

What Australian investors and outsiders do not understand, is that it is “inconceivable” that they will give up without a fight.

Court papers show that on May 13, following the confrontation earlier in the month, the South African High Court granted an order to prevent six pro-mining people from “intimidating, threatening, harassing, victimising and/or assaulting” members of the community “and/or bringing firearms or causing firearms to be brought into community meetings or into the Umgungundlovu area and from inciting any person to do so”.

The six, Spoor says, are “closely associated with MRC” with “material interests” in the Xolobeni project – four as directors, former directors or employees of MRC or its subsidiary, TEM, or the Xolobeni Empowerment Company (Xolco), which is TEM’s “black economic empowerment” partner.

The papers also show the area’s tribal chief, Lunga Baleni, to be on one side while his relative, Xolobeni headwoman Duduzile Baleni, is on the other.

As the chief anti-mining applicant, Duduzile Baleni, said in her affidavit, the situation was “very tense” with “great potential for imminent and escalating violence”.

In affidavits from the respondents, Xolco director Ntethelo Madikizela said the two shots he fired on May 3 were only “warning shots”. He and other respondents say they were acting in self-defence against villagers armed with traditional weapons who had set up a roadblock but had no right to deny them access.

MRC and its associates, Spoor says, are creating “a community at war with itself” by employing prominent community members and providing them vehicles and other resources to distribute to locals to win them over. People who are pro-mining, he says, generally lived more inland and in the main will not be directly affected by MRC’s Xolobeni Mineral Sands project.

In a statement, MRC’s Mark Caruso says that, as in most countries, mineral wealth belongs to the state.

The government and its departments are custodians for the resources and “proper due processes” will be followed, including environmental and social impact assessments by independent consultants, and public participation, he says. TEM had a full legal right to access the area to conduct studies, and it was unfair to prevent that process.

“Foreign direct investment is critical to the development of the South African economy. Any investment and any development must be given the certainty of due process and the security of tenure,” he says.

MRC and TEM supported consultation between the anti and pro-mining lobby, Caruso says, and have no intention of mining traditional cultural or historical burial sites. Steps have been taken towards excising environmentally sensitive estuarine areas and other environmentally sensitive locations.

“[We] do not condone violence of any sort, under any circumstances. We have worked tirelessly within the Amadiba communities to communicate the benefits of development of mining and dispel the misinformation that has been spread with the intent of causing fear and anxiety,” he says.

“We do not agree with other views that the ‘villagers will not back down’.”
In the meantime, Spoor is investigating a constitutional challenge to the Xolobeni project, and another challenge on the basis that the strip was declared a conservation area by Chief Bantu Holomisa under the old apartheid Bantustan system.

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