Aussie company threatens 'biblical smiting' in ongoing Cape row

29 November 2015 - 02:02 By BOBBY JORDAN

Burning tyres, guards shooting at helicopters and a chairman raining down fiery biblical injunctions on the local community - things have gone from bad to B-grade Hollywood at the troubled Tormin mine near Vredendal in the Western Cape.

Its Australian owner, Mineral Commodities, has been granted rights to mine mineral sands along a remote section of South Africa's coast - and has plans to mine offshore sands as well.

And while local residents rally against the mine's alleged wrongdoings, the company's executive chairman, Mark Caruso, has turned to scripture to admonish his opponents.

In an e-mail to local stakeholders last month, he threatened to "rain down vengeance" on anybody who opposed him.

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Caruso quoted the entire biblical passage made famous by a pair of assassins in the Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction.

"From time to time I have sought the Bible for understanding and perhaps I can direct you to Ezekiel 25.17," Caruso wrote, before giving the full verse, which includes the lines: "And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger, those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee."

Elsewhere in his e-mail he invites his detractors to continue their "campaign" against the mine: "I am enlivened by [the] opportunity to grind all resistance to my presence and the presence of MSR [the South African subsidiary of Mineral Commodities] into the animals [sic] of history as a failed campaign."

Some who have seen the mail say it illustrates the bullying tone the mine has adopted since opening amid great fanfare last year, in a ceremony attended by then mining minister Susan Shabangu.

Caruso declined to comment on the hostile tone of his e-mail.

Mineral Commodities is involved in another highly controversial project, at Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape, where its plan to mine a pristine dune belt has divided the community.

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This week the Sunday Times visited the Vredendal area and established that:

• Mineral Commodities is accused of collapsing a section of coast near Vredendal where it opened a large offshore sand mining plant just two years ago. Aerial photographs appear to show evidence of cliff subsidence adjacent to the plant, which is 30km north of Vredendal. The mine claims the damage was caused by a storm;

• The company is refusing to allow the local municipality to inspect its coastal plant, which sits on municipal land;

• Relations between mine management and staff have nose-dived since a strike in September, which culminated in several arrests and mine security allegedly firing on a helicopter hovering near the plant. Police investigated a charge against general manager Gary Thompson. Strikers were demanding an end to what they said were unfair labour practices;

• Earlier this year the Department of Environmental Affairs alerted mine management to several mining permit contraventions, including mining in no-go areas and the use of unauthorised roads. The department instructed the mine's management to appoint an external auditor to compile a report on compliance, or the lack thereof; and

• Despite these contraventions, the Department of Mineral Resources has approved the mine's application for a prospecting licence to mine further along the coast and out to sea.

Environmental affairs this week referred queries to the Department of Mineral Resources, which in turn referred queries to its regional manager, who did not respond.

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Earlier this year, the matter reached the attention of Cosatu's Tony Ehrenreich, who wrote a stinging letter to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, appealing for an investigation into "apartheid-era" violations at the Tormin mine.

Several Vredendal residents, including municipal officials, told the Sunday Times this week that they were disappointed in the mine, which had promised so much - and which employs about 300 people.

Former employee John van der Westhuizen said: "The community said they don't want a Marikana situation here. But if he [Thompson] remains here ... there will be tension. They need to treat people properly."

Caruso declined to respond to specific questions.

He said the company had invested R500-million in mine development and generated "in excess of R500-million annually in export revenue and direct investment in the community through use of 100% South African service providers".

jordanb@sundaytimes.co.za

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