Richards Bay Minerals General Manager Is Murdered

By Gavin du Venage, South Africa Editor

The murder of a senior mining official in what appears to be a deliberate assassination has sent shockwaves through the South African resources industry. Nico Swart, the general manager for Richards Bay Minerals (RBM), controlled by Australia’s Rio Tinto, was shot dead on Monday, May 24 while driving to work. Police said he suffered multiple gunshot wounds from at least three attackers who appear to have waited to ambush his vehicle.

More than 20 high-caliber bullets were sprayed into Swart’s vehicle in Meerensee, a residential area about 25 minutes from RBM, shortly before 7 a.m., according to police. “The circumstances of the shooting are unknown at this stage and the incident is being investigated by the South African Police Services,” Rio Tinto said in a statement, according to MiningMX, a news site focused on the industry.

RBM produces titanium dioxide slag, largely used as a raw material for producing white pigment, mostly for the paint and plastics industries. It operates in the far northwest corner of the country. At the heart of the issue is a planned $465 million expansion project to increase production, which began in 2019. Rio Tinto had to stop work after an employee was shot and injured, following the breakdown of talks between the company and local community members. Both parties disagreed over the level of compensation and remuneration RBM should pay — as well as to whom — for use of the land.

Swart was apparently a lead negotiator in the process, on behalf of RBM. According to human rights attorney Richard Spoor, this is just the latest killing in the area since the project was envisioned five years ago. At least 39 people have been assassinated around the RMB project since 2016, he said. Earlier this year, RBM Managing Director Werner Duvenhage told the virtual Mining Indaba, that the project was in jeopardy unless the impasse was resolved. “The expansion will increase the life of mine by 25 years,” he said.

RBM was the single-largest taxpayer in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province, and this project alone would deliver $7 billion to the economy over its lifetime. “This will require significant investment,” he said. “But we haven’t even got to the initial implementation of this project, because of significant hurdles we face.” Such communal conflicts over the spoils of mining are on the rise. During October, four gunmen shot and killed anti-mining activist Fikile Ntshangase in KwaZulu-Natal province. In a country with 16 million people unemployed, around a third of the working population, competition for jobs and access to mining contracts is intense, and at times turns deadly.

As featured in Womp 2021 Vol 06 -