DM168

ORGANISED CRIME

Cowboys and Crooks – Violent mafias are holding Richards Bay industry to ransom

Cowboys and Crooks – Violent mafias are holding Richards Bay industry to ransom
Heavy trucks moving through Richards Bay cause massive congestion and damage to roads. (Photo: (Phumlani Thabethe)

Getting coal to the deepwater port is a lucrative business and sabotaging the railway line means more trucks are needed. And then there are the worker forums demanding to be labour brokers.

More than 1,000 coal trucks descend on Richards Bay every day and city officials believe transport mafias are sabotaging rail lines and are linked to a string of murders intended to “strike fear into the hearts” of locals.

Deputy Mayor Christo Botha says the murder of a councillor last year was meant to unseat an anti-ANC coalition government trying to bring stability to a city where businesspeople are forced to drive around in heavily armed convoys.

Industry in Richards Bay is massive: huge factories dominate the flatlands leading to the sea, like beast machines in the animated Transformer movies, grunting, groaning and indomitable. Monster power lines crisscross the 12km road running east of the N2 to Africa’s biggest deepwater port.

violent mafia richards bay coal trucks

In 2020, about 75,000 heavy-duty trucks drove into Richards Bay. Last year the number was 500,000, says Deputy Mayor Christo Botha. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

But the well-documented woes of Transnet have turned the city into a mecca for coal trucks and they have brought with them the kinds of battles that used to be the sole preserve of the minibus taxi industry.

On 12 February, Foskor procurement manager Sifiso Mncube was shot dead while driving home after work. Gunmen pumped 25 AK-47 rounds into his car.

This was no ordinary crime.

His killing was the most recent high-profile corporate murder in Richards Bay. In 2021, Nico Swart, the general manager of Richards Bay Minerals (RBM), was shot dead while driving to work.

His murder and stoppages at RBM that year forced global parent company Rio Tinto to declare force majeure. Swart’s murder was preceded by the killings of community leader Meshack Mbuyazi in 2019 and RBM’s Ronny Nzimande in 2016, although police have linked almost a dozen murders to mafia-related activity in Richards Bay.

In June last year, John Myaka, the sole African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) councillor in the City of uMhlathuze, the municipality under which Richards Bay falls, was shot dead in front of his congregants.

Unsettling

What’s going on here? The frightened response from the Zululand Chamber of Business to inquiries sums up the mood: “The chamber is not in a position to comment … the atmosphere here is unsettling. I hope you will understand,” a spokesperson said.

A host of businesspeople and private security personnel in Richards Bay spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal.

“These are targeted killings,” said one source. “Nobody is safe. People are careful about what they are saying and who they are saying it to. Safety is key. Sifiso’s killing reopened the Christo wound. Most executives have bulletproof cars and bodyguards.

violent mafia richards bay coal trucks

The well-documented woes of Transnet have turned the city into a centre for coal trucks — and they have brought with them the kinds of battles that used to be the sole preserve of the minibus taxi industry.(Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

“This is a scary environment. We are desperate. Organised business has approached the highest office in the land twice, crying out for the President to come here and give guidance.”

Another source said Richards Bay businesses were vigorously trying to resist worker forums demanding to act as labour brokers. “They say we have to recruit staff through them. It is straight extortion. They want to hand out jobs and then they demand a cut of salaries. They are mainly taxi thugs. It’s bad here. You have no idea. We need stability, but people are worried because of shootings and sabotage.”

Cowboys and crooks

In addition to RBM and Foskor, Richards Bay is home to corporate giants such as South32, Mondi, Bell, Tronox Sands, Bidvest and Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT), once the world’s largest coal terminal.

South32 operates aluminium smelters; RBM and Tronox process minerals. Mondi has forests and a wood pulping plant and Bell makes big earthmoving equipment. About 5% of Eskom’s power is consumed in the city, KwaZulu-Natal’s second-biggest economy after eThekwini. Big firms employ thousands.

RBM alone, for example, has more than 5,500 employees and contractors, and is regarded as the biggest corporate taxpayer in KwaZulu-Natal. In 2022, it paid the government R1.4-billion in tax. Bell has 2,593 employees and Tronox more than 700 at its Fairbreeze mine.

The industry in Richards Bay has been a magnet for jobseekers and entrepreneurs. One businessperson said it is “still a frontier town where vast fortunes can be made, but it’s also full of cowboys and crooks”.

violent mafias richards bay coal

Reuters reported that in 2022 coal miners said they were putting about 400 trucks on the road a day, carrying about six million tonnes of coal a year. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Richards Bay industry developed in the mid-1970s after the new deepwater harbour was excavated and a 594km railway line was laid between the city and Mpumalanga to facilitate coal exports.

Botha, a lawyer, has lived in Richards Bay for 23 years, and for almost half that time has been a councillor for the ward that in­cludes Alton, the main business zone.

Coalition success

After the local government elections in 2021, a coalition unseated the ANC, which had been in power for 15 years. The IFP, Botha’s DA, the Freedom Front Plus and the ACDP secured enough seats to take over the municipality and control its R6.5-billion budget.

“We scrutinise the budget, especially tender spending and service delivery,” Botha said.

The size of the budget means the city’s spending is also monitored by the National Treasury, and Botha said that since the ANC was ousted there have been clean audits and no adverse findings by the Auditor-General.

Assassinations in Richards Bay were related to procurement and supply chain issues, he said, echoing a comment made by RBM’s managing director, Werner Duvenhage, at the recent Mining Indaba.

Botha said business felt “very vulnerable”. The murder of the ACDP’s Myaka was an attempt to unseat the coalition and shift the balance of power. It was meant to frighten councillors.

There are 67 councillors. The IFP and the ANC each have 25, so the role of the minority parties is key — the DA has eight, the FF+ one, the ACDP one, the EFF six, and the National Freedom Party one.

Botha said the ACDP councillor who replaced Myaka was not intimidated, but people were understandably fearful. “I have two bodyguards. You can’t hide away or stop AK-47s — you can only pray you aren’t the victim of something nasty. But I speak my mind. If everyone shies away from the issues, we won’t be able to deal with them. We need business confidence and stable government.”

Botha got the bodyguards and the council installed security and face recognition access at the uMhlatuze municipal offices after threats to the deputy mayor and officials who instigated legal action against companies illegally stockpiling coal in Richards Bay.

Coal mafias

Botha said trucking mafias were part of the criminal underworld sabotaging the railway line so that millions of tonnes of coal are diverted from rail to their heavy-duty trucks.

“At least 1,000 trucks are coming into the city a day — sometimes as many as 1,500. The port was never built to accommodate these trucks. It is logjammed. Some days we have a 10km line of trucks backing out of the port. They are demolishing our road network and creating havoc.”

Truckers are making a killing and some operators own as many as 1,000 trucks. “There is no way these guys will stand back and allow their business to be affected. They will keep sabotaging the train lines even if you repair the routes.”

Botha said in 2020 about 75,000 heavy-duty trucks drove into Richards Bay. Last year the number was 500,000. One coal truck carries 34 tonnes and the capacity of a single rail wagon is three times that — more than 90 tonnes. Botha said the rail system was designed for trains pulling 100 wagons.

When demand for coal peaked at $430 a tonne in 2022, truckers coined it.

Transnet did not respond to questions about how much coal has been diverted from rail to road. But Reuters reported that in 2022 coal miners said they were putting about 400 trucks on the road a day, carrying about six million tonnes of coal a year. Transnet said it shipped 58 million tonnes to RBCT, 24% below the annual capacity of 77 million tonnes.

Botha said crime in Richards Bay was diverse and the local police had limited impact. Nobody of significance has been arrested for sabotage to the railway lines, so uMhlatuze is forcing a partial solution by imposing a levy of upwards of R20 a tonne on exports ferried by truck through Richards Bay. There is a council resolution to this effect. 

Security

“The mafias have tentacles all over the place and are strangling business,” said a private sector risk expert who advises big companies in Richards Bay. “The state won’t help because it is corrupt. Crime has matured as the economy has grown.”

The expert said mafias were well-resourced and knew the business landscape well. “They have money to register security companies and get powerful weapons. Businesses live in fear of sabotage and hits on their supply chains and the people running them. The security response to threats like this means an overhaul of almost everything you do, which comes at a great cost.”

A Richards Bay entrepreneur said: “In Zululand, businesses are like frogs being slowly boiled alive. People are murdered but business carries on. It’s not unusual to see businesspeople with bodyguards these days. Lots of resources move through Richards Bay and the criminals are hi-tech. We are spending a fortune on protection.”

Another private security operator said: “Companies are resorting to extreme measures. Bigger companies have their principals travelling with close protection officers in B6 heavily armoured vehicles, which can withstand automatic rifle fire. They have backup vehicles and quick-reaction teams. One close protection officer costs R3,000 a day and the armoured car upwards of R850,000.

“The psychological impact of an assassination is enormous. All it takes after a hit is a call to somebody in the supply chain to say: ‘Did you see what happened to so-and-so?’ There is a ripple effect on security costs. You can’t just protect the business leaders. Everyone in the company is afraid. The company has a duty of care to protect them too.”

Solutions

Business in Richards Bay, though seriously spooked, soldiers on. There is too much at stake to back down in the face of mafias.

Botha said: “You can’t sit in the corner and cry; you have to get on with things. Make no mistake, we are under no illusion — the challenges here are huge. But we have a good political partnership and we account properly with clean budgets and a focus on service delivery.

“We have an immense responsibility to make this work. This could be a blueprint for successful coalitions.”

Botha’s can-do attitude seems to have business support. Businesspeople and entrepreneurs who spoke to Daily Maverick credited the municipality with “trying to get things done”.

The deputy mayor said issues related to Transnet and criminal justice were beyond the municipality’s purview, so it had to focus on what it could do.

“We have to change perceptions about this being a war zone,” Botha said. “There is much opportunity here. Industry is huge and we must protect it. We just spent R100-million on water pipes in Alton. There are 17,400 streetlights in the city. When we took over, 1,000 of those weren’t working; now only 120 need to be repaired.

“We have 91 traffic intersections, 45 substations, 700 mini-subs and 8,500 kiosks that provide power directly to the home. There are 2,000km of high-voltage cables underground and 125km of pylons overhead. We have to have a handle on this technical data to manage it properly. If I tried to change a plug at home I would electrocute myself, but up on my office wall is a map of the electrical grid. I have to know how it works. What is inspected is respected.”

On 23 February, President Cyril Ramaphosa was in Durban and met leaders from various business chambers. At least two people at the meeting confirmed that Richards Bay security issues were repeatedly emphasised and the President promised to send resources to help.

“We told the President we cannot continue to do business where people are living in fear of their lives.” DM

Greg Ardé is an author and freelance journalist.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Proudly brought to you by the anc

  • Charles Butcher says:

    All part of the anc governmunt plan at redistributing wealth, bbeee afirmative action for tenderpreneurs

    • Henry Coppens says:

      The government plan is well known and well stated – it is their National Democratic (!!!??) Revolution, which aims to take over or kill any private business so as to being about a connected, corrupt elite who can do as they please without accountability – like in many autocracies – and hence, of course, why SA befriends them. This example is yet another where thugs are used as in the contruction mafia, the Intercape Bus Co saga, etc. to do the dirtly work of the ANC and the subsequent inaction of the police -are they instructed? Not sure whether its all by design, sloth, incompetence or criminality that these things are happening, propably a combination of all of them.

    • J vN says:

      The huge irony here, of course, is that you can bet that especially the large companies have been officially BEE’d already, which generally involves handing over shares to those who add no value.

      The irony now is that these same BEE companies are being informally BEE’d. What the ANC regime took by the force of law, the Mafiosi are taking by the barrel of a gun. In moral terms, however, there is little difference between the two forms of extortion. It’s just the methods that differ, but blackmailing somebody to hand over part of his company or his profits by force of law or by using an AK47, is still a plain old (racialized) shakedown.

  • Brian Cotter says:

    Would be interesting to know who are the trucking companies and owneships.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Not too many cowboys around these days…..plenty of Crooks though and growing in numbers by the day as our Government sits by undecided about the difference between right and wrong. Time for a change.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Is there anything more evil than the Zulu Mafia and its connections, or more, with the ANC?

  • Nervina Kernels says:

    This is the reality of what 9 years of Zuma presidency created. Criminality was allowed to go unencumbered for years. He turned SA into a mafia/narco state. To clean up this mess, we needed a whole new government altogether as is evident by Ramaphosa’s leadership.

  • Lynda Tyrer says:

    Now if we had a real army they could handle this as its terrorism that is destroying the economy.

  • Dragon Slayer says:

    Crooked cops, an NPA likely paid not to prosecute, an ANC rotten to the core, gatekeepers at every point of service delivery. If we are banking on a change of government in May – think again. The [un] civil kakistocracy is so embedded – scorched earth is more likely. I really hate to say it, but we are at war and probably the only hope is intelligence driven private sector vigilantism.

  • Penny Philip says:

    This all happens in Bheki Cele’s home province, under his watch. The same happens in the construction industry in KZN. One cannot help drawing the conclusion that there is a chain of kickbacks right up to the highest level of the police in KZN.

  • Bryan Arundel says:

    Whilst this has become general knowledge for many months no one in authority as taken any action. It takes the media to expose the criminal mafia.
    When will Beki Cele and his keystone cops get involved, I wonder? Dare I say they are probably involved already but not in the way they should to be.

  • William Dryden says:

    And the president promised to send Resorces in response to the security issues, but no resources have been provided that I’ve heard about.

  • Ryckard Blake says:

    Odd that there is no mention in this article of the Mayor’s role in the fight against crime. Presumably an IFP man? Name of ??
    I would prefer the term “mafia” to be replaced by “impi”, or whatever the Zulu word is for a criminal gang.

  • ST ST says:

    Ja. Worrisome. The idea that mafias create their own demand in crippling SA is truly scary. Eskom, Transnet, what else? What would stop even corrupt security companies from doing same? People ‘must eat’ on our misery

  • andrew farrer says:

    Isn’t the job of the SANDF to proctect our infrastructure? High time they were put to work patrolling railway & electricity lines etc.

    • Carl Metelerkamp says:

      The SANDF are supposed to protect SA from foreign invaders. This is clearly a failure in policing. Fix SAPS and these problems will be diminish

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    How many of these mafias are Umkhonto/Apla members? It seems that criminality grew exponentially since the “non-statutary” solders (or ters) returned from wherever they were doing nothing.

  • Craig A says:

    Our president was so worried about the Russia/Ukraine war that the packed his cronies into a plane and went to sort it out (well at least in his brain he did). But he turns a blind eye to the war in our country where 27,000 people are murdered every year. And the corruption is now beyond the turning point! The government must know what is going on but it is their best interests not to stop it. It sounds like a plot for a Hollywood mafia series. Out beautiful country is being run by thugs!

  • Iam Fedup says:

    We are truly living in a Mad Max world of anarchy – except that the actors in the movie were at least good looking. Whatever the ANC touches turns to dust.

  • Dacre Hattingh says:

    If this is indeed a trucking mafia at play then who is employing them to transport their coal? Surely they are just as culpable? We also need to hold business to account if they are just turning a blind eye for the sake of convenience.

  • District Six says:

    Mafias seem to be taking over and organised crime fills gaps. This is a global phenomenon. Countries and economies in transition go through this. Latin America, East Europe, Soviet Union collapsed into a mafia state, Yakuza, criminal bikies in Australia and new zealand, the pinky blinders of the UK docklands and London’s East End.

    In the 1920s, the USA had the Italian, Irish and whatever, mafias. Across the world, organised crime moves in during periods of transition. Yes, zuma was a bad man; a worse president, as asserted by various courts of law.

    Is the trump nepotistic cabal, an assorted coterie of daughters, sons, in-laws and legal henchmen not its own criminal mafia? One never knows when he appears in court whether it is for sexual assault, lying about his taxes, cheating lawyers, bribing sex workers, courting a coup de’tat, or whatever.

    It is well-attested that the ANC is a criminal enterprise looting the state. But to conveniently suggest this is “the ANC” is to miss the wood for the trees. With little doubt, the ANC is a beneficiary of the mayhem that is KZN.
    But let’s not get hysterical. Organised crime is a global phenomenon.

  • Bob Fraser says:

    Bob – March 6th 2024 at 14:45
    South Africa has been a mafia state since Zuma’s days and truthfully speaking there has been no improvement with Ramaphosa in control. Who will decide if the election is free and fare. Hopefully,of it comes to that it will be up to the Constitutional Court to decide, unless there is civil war before then

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