Mining for titanium on the Wild Coast? Follow the supply chain

Xolobeni is a small coastal community at war with a mining company. Since 2007, the Amadiba Crisis Committee has been opposing Australian mining company MRC’s application to extract nine million tons of ilmenite from the red coastal sands of the Wild Coast, remote and well south of Durban. While the local community has recently seen off an environmental impact assessment team and their armed guards, the precedents for these kinds of conflict don’t look good for the Crisis Committee.

Xolobeni is a re-run of earlier conflicts. Back in the late 1970s, for example, there was outrage at a similar application to dredge minerals from the coastal sands of northern KwaZulu. The company won and memory of the objections has faded away. In Xolobeni, the local chief has swapped the confidence of his people for a Toyota 4×4 from the mining company. With time, the thin resources of the local community are likely to be weathered away.With some irony, the film Blood Diamonds was made in this part of the Wild Coast a year before MRC lodged its first application to mine the dunes. Set in an alluvial diamond mine in Sierra Leone, this was a revelation of the financing of conflicts in war zones to the mutual benefit of local warlords and multinational mining companies. Ilmenite and its uses shares none of the romance of diamonds and Xolobeni does not have a Leonardo DiCaprio. This is one of innumerable local conflicts; of desperate importance for those who are there; of little interest to the world at large.

If the Xolobeni mining concession is granted, it will displace 200 households. MRC justifies this in the name of economic development and the creation of 600 jobs.

Zamile Qunya, an entrepreneur who grew up in Xolobeni, defends the project: “all you have in the area is naked children asking for sweets, no water, no electricity, no clinics. It’s not a life that is being lived by people in a democratic society.” The Amadiba Crisis Committee’s Nonhle Mbuthuma, also interviewed by Kwanele Sosibo for the Mail and Guardian, counters this:

We don’t want the mine because, first, an open-cast mine is very dusty and we’ll be affected by TB, asthma and other lung diseases. We’ve been to Richards Bay where this type of mining is happening and observed the problems in that area. Second, we also have our fields there, which are our livelihood. Third, there are graves, as we have homes in the area. The assessors say they only see three graves but in one of the homesteads there are more than 20 graves. Fourth, we have livestock and they want to mine on our grazing fields. That mine is short term, projected for 25 years. After that we can’t return to our land or lives.

The community is sceptical about the promise of jobs, noting that this form of mining is highly mechanized.

By convention, conflicts such as this are ring-fenced, with specific parties identified and defined, in preparation for the formalities of statutory processes, litigation and then, if necessary, enforcement. But, by the time such processes are played through, irreparable damage has been done. All too often, the certainties of the present are repudiated by the future; who now makes asbestos, or mines for lead?

The other way is to use forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution that are founded in the recognition that there is no gain in litigation and that a negotiated outcome is preferable.

Qunya, who founded Xolani Empowerment Company as a junior business partner to the Perth-based MRC, believes that the cause of the conflict is the “confusion from people from outside our community who have their own interests at heart”. Given this, neither he nor MRC currently believe that there is anything to negotiate. As Mark Caruso, the Perth-based chairman of MRC puts it, “it is up to the government to determine whether or not mining takes place”.

One way to break this impasse, and to open the way for an alternative dialogue, is to challenge such definitions of relevant interests. Is this only a matter for the local community and for companies seeking local mining rights for a remote strip of Indian ocean coastland? Or is this an issue of more general concern?

The conflict can be redefined – changing the terms of its potential solution – by following the supply chain.

Once extracted from the Xolobeni dunes, the ilemite will be reduced with sulfuric acid to create pure titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide is one of the whitest minerals known and has very high refraction properties. The titanium dioxide from the Xolobeni plant will be used across the world for cosmetics and sun block creams, for paints, plastics and protective coatings, as a food additive for dried vegetables, nuts and mustard, and for the artificial enhancement of diary products and sweets to make them appear whiter than they are.

Titanium dioxide is used in very small quantities, but also frequently. After they have inhaled the dust over long periods, laboratory rats have developed respiratory tract cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer now sees titanium dioxide as a potential carcinogen for human populations. Given this, the Amadiba Crisis Committee’s concern for the future health of their own community looks like a far wider worry.

Seeing supply chains as ways of mapping ethical investment and development knocks away the argument that conflicts such as Xolobeni are purely local affairs. The work of an Amsterdam-based social enterprise, Fairphone, shows how this can be developed further, into forms of practical action and intervention.

As its name suggests, Fairphone manufactures smart phones that are, to the extent possible, ethically manufactured. They do this by tracing back the supply chain for the minerals that make a cell phone work: antalum, tungsten, copper, iron, nickel, aluminum, tin, silver, chromium, gold and palladium.

All these minerals and metals originally enter the supply chain from the mining sector – a challenging industry in terms of sustainability. From pollution and extremely dangerous working conditions to child labor, a number of mining-related practices desperately require improvement.

Rather than trying to avoid part of the world where the mining of these essential minerals is tangled up in conflicts, Fairphone deliberately goes there, with the aim of using its purchasing power to counter the corrosion of violence and corruption

For example, tin.

Tin is extracted from cassiterite, mined extensively in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is used in the soldering paste for your cell phone’s circuit boards. Tin mining has been implicated in corruption and war-mongering in the eastern DRC, causing tin to be listed as a “conflict mineral” by, for example, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office it its guidance to companies working and trading in Africa.

Companies can avoid the problem by sourcing tin from other parts of the world. Fairphone’s position, though, is that withdrawing from the DRC will remove legitimate sources of local employment and revenue, making the area still more vulnerable to violent conflict.

To create the Fairphone, we have made a conscious decision to support mines in conflict areas, specifically within the DRC. By focusing on a single region, we want to formalize the mining sector, increase employment for small-scale miners and contribute to economic development and regional stability.

Fairphone is a member of the Conflict Free Tin Initiative that was founded in 2012. This provides for a defined supply chain through which minerals can be traced from their origin in the ore through to the final manufactured product.

Back to Xolobeni. Every time a holidaymaker uses sun block cream on a beach in Anse Lazio, Clifton or Honokalani, they are reconnecting a supply chain that weaves back through retail outlets, distributors, factories and mineral processing plants to mineral sands and the effects of mining on local communities. They also have the right to know the health risks, however tenuous these may be at today’s level of medical research. Contrary to Zamile Qunya’s assertion that this is a local issue, from which outsiders should keep away, mining for ilmenite on South Africa’s Wild Coast has as wide implications up through the supply chain as mining for tin in the eastern DRC.


John Clarke, “West Coast mining conflict: Xolobeni escalates”. Daily Maverick, 4 May 2015.


Dineo Kaku, “Call for calm over proposed mine”. Cape Times Business Report, June 19 2015.

Kwanele Sosibo, “Villagers call for chief’s head over plan to mine their land”. Mail and Guardian, 7 May 2015.

UK Government, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “Guidance, conflict minerals”.

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