Sandile Motha for Mukurukuru Media
Three men stormed into a tavern wielding guns. None of them disguised their faces. Some of the patrons stood still, terrified at the sight of the armed men. Others managed to sneak out and flee.
One of the attackers walked to patrons seated at a table and asked threateningly with menace in his voice.
“Niyifihlephi induna nina? Uma ningayikhiphi yini enizoba izimvu zomhlabelo!” [Where have you hidden the headman? If you do not disclose his whereabouts, you shall die on his behalf.]
Before long the gunmen opened fire at the patrons. Two men, Sphamandla Phungula, 32, and Mlondolozi Zulu, 29, well known community activists opposed to proposed mining, were hit and killed.
“They had lost a lot of blood, one of the deceased tried to run but fell in the doorway and the assailants finished him off. There was just blood all over. Initially we had thought both of them died instantly, but we noticed that the other guy had faked death and we called an ambulance for him. Unfortunately, we later learnt that he had succumbed to his injuries while at hospital,” an eyewitness told Mukurukuru Media.
The incident, which happened last Sunday, has shocked the small community of Ramaphosa near Dannhauser in KwaZulu-Natal.
It is believed the killers were looking for traditional leader Motokali Sithole of Ramaphosa village under the Dannhauser local municipality who has already escaped several assassination attempts.
Sithole is advocating for adequate consultation of villagers in the proposed revitalisation of coal mining in the area. The recent attempt on his life ended in the callous murder of the two community activists.
At least 30 people have been killed in the past two years in what is believed to be hits on people fighting for the rights of communities affected by mining in various parts of KwaZulu-Natal.
Most of the people killed are community activists who were against the forced evictions of residents to make way for the extraction of raw material and rich minerals from their ancestral soil.
Mary de Haas, violence monitor and researcher who has conducted extensive research on the effect of mining within northern KZN, said besides the killings often associated with mining, villagers also carry the brunt of respiratory complications and other waterborne diseases.
“It seems that corruption lies at the heart of these killings. Some of those who have died knew of gross corruption relating to tender allocation (involving work for RBM), and alleged serious corruption in the Traditional Authority, possibly linked to a payment to the suthority made by the Ingonyama Trust relating to mining income.
“There seems to be no will from the government or traditional leadership to pay attention to the community grievances and the fact that innocent lives were being lost,” said de Haas.
Sihle Sithole, speaking on behalf of induna Sithole who has since fled from Ramaphosa, said unknown gunmen tried to assassinate his uncle during a session of the tribal court in November 2019.
“People are trying to kill him because he is fighting for the people to benefit in the mine that is built on their ancestral land. At this one stage they duped him that there was a matter that required his attention at the tribal court. Whilst there, they tried to assassinate him but failed. Since then they have been hunting him down,” Sihle said.
He said the community together with non-profit organisation, Sisonke Environmental Justice Network, had petitioned the mine management to halt operations until they have been provided with a proper plan on how the villagers will benefit.
“After this recent killing of the community leaders, my uncle has been forced to go into hiding. His wife and children have deserted their home and are now living with relatives. We also took a decision to stop the children from going to school because we fear they might be abducted,” Sihle said.
Colonel Thembeka Mbhele, KwaZulu-Natal provincial police spokesperson, said they are investigating the motive behind the murders. She said two suspects aged 22 and 30 were arrested and appeared at the Dannhauser Magistrate’s Court last Tuesday.
Mbhele said they have confiscated two 9mm pistols from the murder suspects. The weapons have been sent for ballistic tests.
“The ballistic tests will give us an indication whether the guns have been used to commit other murders and possibly add more charges to the suspects,” said Mbhele.
The slain mining activists were buried at the weekend with the assistance of villagers who donated towards the funeral expenses.
“We felt that as residents we needed to mobilise some funds to assist the two families in their time of grief, since the deceased were fighting a good cause. They died for the community. Their death has also renewed our vigour to soldier on and continue to fight for our rights to existence,” said Phumzile Zimba, one of the community members.
She said the deceased were breadwinners and that their tragic killing has left untold emotional and financial suffering to their families such that the residents had agreed to form a trust to take care of the educational needs of their children.
The bedrock of the hostile relations in the community was apparently triggered by the recently revitalised Izimbiwa coal mine, a subsidiary of mining giant Glencore which produces a diverse range of metals and minerals such as copper, aluminium and zinc.
The mining project has allegedly been hijacked by politicians, who call the shots, determining the beneficiaries of jobs opportunities and tenders provided by the mine.
Lizwi Mkholo, KZN spokesperson for Sisonke Environment Justice Network, described the situation in the Ramaphosa village as “tense and unpredictable”, saying hired killers were used to eliminate community members who were believed to be sympathising with the community.
“As a host community, the people have a right to determine how they want to benefit in the mine. In our engagements with the residents we gathered that they were never consulted before the mine was restored after it had been closed a while back. The politicians who are not even from the area hijacked the process for their own selfish end. All the community want is transparency,” said Mkholo.
He said their members were also under surveillance from the assassins and were told never to set foot in the village or risk being killed.
Dennis Manzi, manager communities and operations at Izimbiwa coal mine, declined to comment.
The area around Amajuba district has been hit recently by a mining boom which has led to tensions between those against and those in support of mining. MC
This article was produced by Mukurukuru Media.
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