By The Standard
A GIANT Chinese tile manufacturer is embroiled in a messy row involving theft of one of the major raw materials for its Norton factory in a scandal that is likely to expose how it allegedly manipulates law enforcement agencies in Zimbabwe to bully small businesses.
Sunny Yi Feng Tiles Zimbabwe, a Chinese-owned billion-dollar ceramics venture located some 30km from Harare on the highway to Bulawayo, has in the past come under the spotlight for alleged gross violations of labour rights amid allegations that it is being shielded from scrutiny by senior Zanu PF and government officials.
An investigation unearthed evidence that the Chinese-owned firm has been a subject of discussions at high level government meetings in Mashonaland West over its alleged environmental crimes for years without any action being taken against it.
The Chinese firm is accused of a litany of transgressions that include violating Zimbabwe’s environmental laws such as discharging of effluent into Darwendale Dam, air pollution and stealing of pit sand as well as gravel.
Fresh evidence has since emerged that the company is involved in alleged theft of kaolinite ore or kaolin — a clay mineral that is used in the manufacture of ceramic tiles — from a locally owned mine in Murombedzi in Mashonaland West with police accused of being reluctant to stop the looting.
Documents obtained by this publication show that Astrabay Mine, which owns a mining claim in Zowa, Murombedzi some 90km from Chinhoyi, has been battling to fend off Sunny Yi Feng, which has been illegally extracting kaolin from its claim.
Astrabay Mine’s woes started when the company engaged Sunny Ti Feng co-director William Gau sometime in 2018 to discuss a possible deal for the supply of kaolin.
Gau is said to have insisted on visiting the mine to assess the distance to the Sunny Yi Feng factory in Norton and state of the road before determining prices for the natural resource.
After the visit, Sunny Yi Feng expressed interest to source kaolin from Astrabay Mine, but the deal collapsed as Gau’s company offered to buy the mineral at US$3 per tonne, a figure the mine owners deemed too low for the raw material.
A tonne of kaolin ore ranges from US$65 to US$70 depending on the mineral content within the alloy.
Sunny Yi Feng, however, secretly tried to take over the claim by registering it with the Mines and Mining Development ministry, but was stopped in its tracks by the alert mine owners.
“This was a way of trying to steal (the claim),” said Muyengwa Motsi, the Astrabay lawyer.
In April 2020, Sunny Yi Feng started to surreptitiously send trucks to Murombedzi to steal ore from the mine, documents show.
Astrabay filed a police report against the Chinese company in Zvimba under CR 29/07/2020.
The Mines ministry’s department of metallurgy valued the stolen ore at US$4 174 444, but efforts to get the company prosecuted fell flat as police allegedly refused to cooperate.
On February 4, 2021, Astrabay, through M.E Motsi and Associates Legal Practitioners, wrote to Chinhoyi police’s criminal investigations department (CID) complaining over lack of commitment to investigate the case.
A complaint filed against police’s handling of the case involving the Chinese firm
In response, the CID said “we are not getting cooperation from the Chinese” to proceed with the investigation.”
“In June 2021, we then got another tip-off that they were stealing for the second time,” Motsi told The Standard.
“We went and got some escort from two CID officers and intercepted seven trucks, which were fully loaded with kaolin ore.
“The truck drivers were instructed by the police to go and park at Murombedzi police station, but they somehow sped off to Norton.
“We did not have any means to stop them as we were poorly equipped.
“They could, however, not escape with an excavator which was still on the ground as it required a truck to lift and transport it.
“They then sent a truck the following day to collect the excavator, but police anticipated this and mounted a roadblock to intercept the truck, which they took as an exhibit for Chinhoyi CID.
“The excavator was later released under unclear circumstances.”
In February 2021, Astrabay wrote a letter of complaint against an investigating officer identified as Detective Constable Musindo for failing to arrest the Chinese company’s directors Gau and another one only identified as Wang over the offences.
CID director M Magandi responded to the complaint on April 24, 2021 defending the detective, saying “he made all the efforts to arrest the three accused persons.”
On February 8 2021, the mine also received a written response from Assistant Commissioner PT Majuta who insisted the cases were “receiving attention.”
A month later, Astrabay’s lawyers wrote to CID Chinhoyi, but there was still no movement on the cases.
Frustrated by the logjam, the mine’s lawyers wrote to the National Prosecuting Authority on November 8, 2021 questioning what they viewed as preferential treatment being given to the Chinese nationals in what should have been a straightforward criminal matter.
“With due respect to your office, what do you expect us to conclude with such conduct?
“Many police stations are full of exhibits in many forms of articles seized from locals pending trial,” the lawyers wrote.
“What is so special about these Chinese?
“They are not placed on remand, exhibits are not impounded, those that find their way into a public station are released to them to enable them to commit further offences with the same equipment.”
In one of the cases, a Sunny Yi Feng driver, Artwell Kaso on July 13, 2020 admitted stealing 120 tonnes of kaolin in a warned and cautioned statement to the police.
“I admit to the charges levelled against Sunny Yi Feng Company…but it was given authority to mine by G&W mineral company which was claiming to be the registered owner of the mine,” Kaso claimed.
“The company paid money to G&W mineral company to mine there.”
Astrabay owners dismissed claims that they had a dispute with G&W as a ruse. Sunny Yi Feng did not stop sending trucks to loot kaolin after that incident.
The most recent case was on February 9, when drivers employed by the Chinese company were caught red handed stealing ore from Astrabay Mine.
“We had gone to the mine with some Ministry of Mines officials on issues of beacons and we found them there,” Motsi said.
“We anticipated the incident as on the evening before, we got wind that their trucks had gone to our mine.
“We went to Chinhoyi police to get some five armed officers from the district reaction group.
“Police were very cooperative, and we managed to impound some seven trucks and the same excavator used in the previous theft, which was released without any explanation.
“Our handicap was that we could not get the excavator as an exhibit again without a low-bed truck which is used to lift it. So, we left it at the site.”
The trucks were taken to the Chinhoyi police station, but two of the truck drivers escaped. Three trucks were released because they were yet to be loaded with ore.
“So, we took two fully loaded trucks to Chinhoyi police,” Motsi added. “On this third theft, we arrested six truck drivers.
The registration numbers for the trucks that were intercepted are ADC 8084, ADC 8085, ADC 8876, AEU 5782, AEU 6828, AEU 6830 and AEZ 4950.
“The matter is yet to go to court as we are waiting to get a report from the department of metallurgy to assay the mineral content and value of the stolen ore,” he said.
Police confirmed the incident in a February 11, 2022 letter to the Mines ministry where they were seeking help to evaluate the stolen ore.
A Detective Inspector Dale, who is in charge of Chinhoyi CID minerals, flora and fauna wrote: “This office is investigating a case of contravening section 379 of the Mines and Minerals Act Chapter 21:05 ‘Theft of mineral ore’ where the three accused persons Energy Chiridza, Munyaradzi Mutyavaviri and Sunny Yi Feng Tiles Zimbabwe Pvt Ltd represented by Terrify Taruvinga stole kaolin ore from Astrabay Mine, Zowa 10, Makonde Chinhoyi.’
“The current (officer in charge) is very useful, but you can tell that he is being overwhelmed by forces he cannot control,” Motsi said.
“We have tried to even engage the Chinese company owners themselves, but these people do not have time for us”
Terrify Taruvinga, the Sunny Yi Feng deputy director, said he needed time to consult the company’s lawyers before commenting on the allegations.
Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said the law enforcement agents were not to blame for delays in the prosecution of the Chinese firm’s directors.
“There are three reports related to this matter and the police has done its job by compiling dockets, which are now within the courts’ jurisdiction,” Nyathi told The Standard.
“However, it appears that there is an on-going dispute between these two companies (Astrabay and G&W), which are both claiming rights over the mining claim.
“So, that issue is being handled by the Ministry of Mines, which is the relevant authority to deal with the matter.”
Motsi said there was no dispute over the kaolin claims, but the matter was raised by one of the Sunny Yi Feng drivers to escape arrest after he was found stealing ore at the mine.