Rio Tinto shuts RBM, declares force majeure on contracts as security deteriorates

Richards Bay Minerals, KwaZulu-Natal

RIO Tinto has stopped production at its 74%-owned Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) and declared force majeure on customer contracts owing to the deteriorating security at the South African minerals sands mine.

Sinead Kaufman, chief executive of the minerals division at Rio Tinto, acknowledged the “ongoing support” of regional and national governments, but added that the safety of its employees was its “top priority”.

All mining and smelting operations at RBM have been halted until further notice, the company said.

Security problems have plagued the operations for at least the last two years. In May, RBM’s GM, Nico Swart, was shot dead whilst travelling to work. Earlier this month, a group of community members arrived at the mine and burnt four machines.

United Associations of SA (Uasa), a trade union, called on President Cyril Ramaphosa, mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe, the provincial government, and the police to restore order and safety to the mine’s operations.

“The violence and destruction at RBM are out of hand and cannot be allowed to continue,” the union said at the time. RBM is the largest taxpayer in KwaZulu-Natal, contributing R6.2bn annually, said the union.

South African mines minister, Gwede Mantashe, visited RBM in the wake of Swart’s killing. “We had to come and visit here and reassure the company that working together, we can resolve this,” the minister said.

Rio Tinto told Bloomberg News in April it was unsure when a $463m expansion of RBM would proceed because of security risks. Work on the project was halted two years ago.

The project, known as Zulti South, is intended to extend the life of the entire operation as the commercially viable ore at other sites is depleted. RBM initially targeted completing the project this year, the newswire said.

Rio Tinto reiterated today that the Zulti South project remained on full suspension since the security and community issues in 2019.

RBM employs about 5,000 workers and exports titanium dioxide slag used to create ingredients for products including paint, plastics, sunscreen, and toothpaste.