In 2017 an ‘overseas’ delegation announced it wanted to start an oil project in the area. The community planned a protest last year to try to find out details. Since then, six activists have died
Children go to school, banana and pineapple hawkers walk the streets and the unemployed laze about in their homes in Empembeni near Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal.
Until you start a conversation with locals you would think life was normal.
You would not detect the gripping fear and mistrust of strangers, which runs deep in this rural community.
Getting lost while looking for the KwaDube traditional authority offices last week, City Press gave a lift to a man at eSikhawini.
“I can give you directions but, nowadays, we cannot trust [you because you could be] going there to shoot the chief,” he said.
Empembeni has become a killing field.
Hitmen are running riot – shooting community leaders who have been interrogating the benefits of an oil project that was announced in 2017 and warning that should their homes be removed to make way for the project, they would end up worse off than before.
Six men, known as community activists, have been killed since July last year.
This was after a public protest was planned earlier that month to demand answers to questions about removals and the oil project.
Gesheshe Nkwanyana was shot dead on July 10. Three days later Ntuthuko Dladla was killed.
On September 16 Khaya Ncube was killed and eight days later Keke Ngwane was shot in broad daylight at eSikhawini shopping mall.
Wiseman Hadebe died in a hail of bullets – 15 in all – in Ngwelezana, where he was in hiding, and on December 13 local small business association chairperson Mandlenkosi Makhoba was fatally shot.
Other men who survived are in hiding.
When City Press arrived at the traditional authority where Inkosi Mfanazonke Dube and his council were meeting, they confirmed there was tension in the area.
A bodyguard carrying a rifle was at the reception area and in the boardroom a group of more than 10 councillors was courteous but unwelcoming.
Initially, they demanded answers to a barrage of questions and stared fixedly at the reporter.
It appeared that details about the oil project had been nothing but sketchy.
The whole community was called to a meeting early in 2017, during which a delegation from “overseas” announced that it wanted to start an oil project in the area.
No one seemed to know the name of the company or its representatives.
The KwaZulu-Natal police did not give a detailed response to written questions.
Premier Willies Mchunu’s spokesperson, Thami Ngidi, said the premier was not aware of any proposed development in the area.
It is alleged that after the 2017 meeting people were seen surveying and taking aerial photographs.
The mineral resources department said that many years prior to 2017 mining licences were granted to Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) and Tronox, a chemicals company, to produce titanium and zirconium products.
Ayanda Shezi, spokesperson for the mineral resources department, said Tronox was folding up its operation and was in the process of rehabilitating the land. RBM, Shezi said, was granted a new mining licence as part of its Zulti South expansion project.
“The RBM project has not started the production process and is still undergoing a preliminary establishment phase. The company is consulting local communities on how they can benefit from procurement opportunities presented by the project, leading to its full development and production,” Shezi said.
Activist Msongelwa*, who left Empembeni and has been hiding since his close associate, Makhoba, was killed, alleged a group of men who were “influencing” the traditional authority started the killings.
“These men were in control when investors came into the area and they’re rich. They were mysteriously shot and their families started pointing fingers and started fighting with one another. Now a son of one of these men is hiring hitmen to kill anyone he suspects of having killed his father,” Msongelwa said.
He said outspoken community activists who wanted the investment to benefit the whole community were targeted.
Inkosi Dube said he was not yet the chief when the meeting took place, but confirmed that a company approached him after he took office in March 2017.
“They came to me and said they needed 49ha. They did not come back when I asked them how the community would benefit, who prospected and found the oil and how much there was,” Dube said.
Violence monitor and analyst Mary de Haas said it seemed, from information pieced together from various sources, that corruption was “at the heart of the killings”.
De Haas said the KwaZulu-Natal government had not answered her questions about the new “oil project” in the area in six months.
“It is clear that whatever is planned is linked to infrastructure, presumably for mining-related activities – perhaps linked to proposed off-shore prospecting, or storage, or even a refinery – but no one knows,” she said.
Lucrative tenders, De Haas said, could be the motive for the killings.
*Not his real name