OUR BURNING PLANET

Rise of the snake: Illegal mining threatens Venda’s sacred mountain

By Kevin Bloom 16 February 2020
Caption
Lake Fundudzi in the Soutpansberg in the Limpopo Province of South Africa (Iris Auda / Wikimedia Commons)

Lake Fundudzi and the Thathe Vondo Forest are recognised South African treasures, protected by the government under the National Heritage Resources Act. But since April 2018, with the approval of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, a mining company has been prospecting for diamonds, gold, coal and platinum — which it has now apparently found. The local community knows next to nothing of the prospecting licence, a fact that renders it doubly illegal.

“It is very important to us to jealously guard this place.”

With these words, His Majesty Mailausumbwa MPK Tshivhase and the Tshivhase Royal Council declared their intention to halt the mining project on the shores of Lake Fundudzi and in the Thathe Vondo Forest. Two weeks after Our Burning Planet first had sight of the prospecting licence, which came to us via a whistle-blower who had submitted a Promotion of Access to Information Act request, we finally received a response from the office of the traditional authority that controlled the land.

The substance of the response was clear: the Royal Council aimed to “conserve biological diversity” by “strengthening sound ecosystem management”. In terms of poverty alleviation, they would “equitably” share the benefits of ecotourism between local communities and indigenous people, which would be achieved by “obtaining their informed consent and full participation” in planning and management.

As a statement of purpose, this was about as good as it got in rural South Africa. All over the country, from the platinum belt in the former Bophuthatswana to the Wild Coast of the former Transkei, mining companies have been exploiting apartheid-era customary laws by bribing officials and paying off chiefs. The standard method, as perfected by Pallinghurst Resources with the Bakgatla Ba Kgafela, was to fill the traditional council with members who were amenable to selling out their people for a fee. In this context, where the vast majority of rural South Africans were reporting “zero benefit” from the mines that had been sunk on their land, the Tshivhase Royal Council was a refreshing outlier.

But, as Our Burning Planet had learnt from indigenous healers in the region, there was another reason that the licence to prospect for minerals around Lake Fundudzi and the Thathe Vondo Forest was unique.

These two sites, situated a few kilometres apart in the high Soutpansberg, had been held as sacred since long before the white men arrived with their science and their maps. The customary guardians of Fundudzi and Thathe Vondo, who had always been chosen from the same local clans, had never needed ecologists to tell them that starvation would follow if the sites were desecrated or destroyed. From the central farmlands of the plateau to the untamed bush in the low-lying east, Fundudzi and Thathe Vondo had served for countless generations as Venda’s regenerative spring.

“We have no less than four river sources in the area,” Khosi Muelekanyi Tshivhase informed Our Burning Planet on behalf of his regent and the Royal Council. “These are rivers which give day-to-day livelihoods to the population of Venda. Our main task is to preserve biodiversity in totality.”

Then, after laying out how the protection of biological and cultural diversity went hand-in-hand, Tshivhase came to our specific questions.

In response to our first question, which concerned the Royal Council’s prior awareness of the documentary evidence that Our Burning Planet had obtained, Tshivhase claimed only partial knowledge.

“The Tshivhase Royal Council has not seen the mining prospecting licence granted to Mammba Metal Group,” he wrote, without once denying that the document was authentic. “Lake Fundudzi falls within our territory and we are here to protect [the] national heritage buffer zone as declared by the government in 2014.”

To the second question, which inquired whether the local community had given its “free and informed” consent to the licence, he was forthright and blunt.

“The answer is NO. Mammba Metal Group might have selected [a] few individuals for consultation without our approval as Tshivhase Royal Council.”

Evidently, despite not having seen the licence, the Tshivhase royal family had been following the matter for some time. Which was hardly surprising, given that in October 2018 a strange series of articles had appeared in the Limpopo Mirror, regarding the boast of Thinawanga Ernest Mammba — the chief executive of the Mammba Metal Group — to be building a giant mine.

“There is no mine that is bigger than this one in our country,” Mammba said at the launch event in Thohoyandou. A businessman associated with Mammba had informed reporters that De Beers was funding the mine, but in a follow-up article, the diamond conglomerate distanced itself from the entrepreneur and his plans. Although the journalists at the Limpopo Mirror were unable to confirm whether an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) had been drafted, it was taken for granted that prospecting had begun.

On 5 February 2020, following a week of background research and source verification, Our Burning Planet was ready to call up Mammba himself.

“We have just finished drilling,” he informed us with no hesitation. “We found all the minerals that were mentioned in our prospecting rights.”

Indeed, the prospecting licence had listed these riches in alphabetical order: “Chrome Ore, Coal, Copper Ore, Diamond (General), Gold Ore, Iron Ore, Manganese Ore, Nickel Ore and Platinum Group Metals.”

The licence, signed and awarded on 4 April 2018 by Bongani Hlatshwayo of the directorate for mineral regulation in Limpopo, also stated that the regional manager would “approve the relevant Environmental Management Plan and sign the right on 25 April 2018”.

We had intended to ask Mammba whether he would forward us a copy of the EMP, but, after inquiring when he planned to start mining and who his investors happened to be, he said he was driving and promised to call us back.

He never did.

***

“The name ‘Fundudzi’,” it stated in the Government Gazette of 7 February 2014, where the lake and its surrounds were first declared a National Heritage Site, “resulted from a cultural ritual to be observed by anyone approaching the lake for the first time. This involves bowing in a special way [and] removing a strand of hair from one’s head, which is then thrown into the water as a way of respecting the ancestors.”

According to Mpatheleni Makaulule, a Venda healer and the founder of an organisation called “Dzomo la Mupo” — which means “to speak for the natural world” — the ancestors had now been disrespected in the worst possible way. Her severely underfunded organisation managed 11 so-called “sacred sites” in the region, but the threat to Fundudzi and Thathe Vonde was by far the greatest challenge she has ever faced.

“Thathe is the highest peak of the Soutpansberg,” Makaulule told Our Burning Planet, “so it’s a very important catchment area. But with Lake Fundudzi, which is right there, it is also the most spiritual place in the whole of Venda. It’s the home of everything, the source of holistic life. If they mine in that place, we will have to give up.”

Makaulule, aware of the weight of her words, asked that we speak to others — she put us in touch with a pair of elders, two men from the clan responsible for protecting the sacred forest. Neither of the men had heard of the prospecting licence awarded to the Mammba Metal Group; from their reactions, it was clear they were having a hard time processing the information.

“Mining?” said Nelson Ramudingane, “no, Thathe Vondo, I don’t want mining inside.”

Aaron Netshilungwi was equally shocked, his voice trailing off into despair as he considered the possibility that what we were saying was true.

But Mashudu Dima, an 80-year-old healer who has worked with Makaulule for many years, was fully up to speed. The mine would almost certainly poison the rivers that flowed down from the mountain into the Kruger National Park, he said, as well as draw water from the Thathe Vondo dam and the lake itself, which would intensify the suffering in a region ravaged by drought. He also mentioned the dismal efforts at mine rehabilitation in Venda, noting that Exarro’s open-cast Tshikondeni coal mine had permanently destroyed the soil, water and housing of the surrounding community.

“At Tshikondeni, everybody is crying,” said Dima, “I told them, ‘No, you people have allowed this’.”

By Our Burning Planet’s reckoning, when it came to the legality of Mammba’s licence, this was the crux. While the licence was in evident breach of the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999, given the clear overlap between the 13,043ha earmarked for prospecting and the heritage buffer zone as demarcated in 2014, it was the apparent lack of community consent that situated the matter within a much larger struggle.

Whether they knew it or not, as part of the former Bantustan of Venda, the Fundudzi and Thathe Vondo communities were entitled to the safeguards offered by the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act, which had been ratified by two high-profile judgments in 2018 — the Xolobeni judgment in the North Gauteng High Court and the Maledu judgment in the Constitutional Court.

In both of these cases, where compliant chiefs had sided with well-heeled mining conglomerates, the courts held that the “informed consent” of the entire community was paramount. How much more would the safeguards apply when not even the Royal Council had been adequately informed, let alone ordinary members of the community?

This was the question that Our Burning Planet posed to Aaron Kharivhe, director of enforcement and compliance in the office of mineral regulation at the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. After asking Kharive whether DMRE was aware of the overlap with the heritage buffer zone, whether an EMP had in fact been granted and whether the Department of Water and Sanitation had been kept abreast of the implications for Venda’s water sources, we put to him the following:

Daily Maverick is led to believe that the local community has not given its ‘free, prior and informed consent’ to the prospecting for minerals in the area, which would make the licence illegitimate as per the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act of 1996. Does DMRE dispute this claim?”

On 31 January 2020, a few hours after receiving our questions, Kharivhe responded.

“The matter is hereby referred to Mr Azwihangwisi Mulaudzi (Regional Manager, Limpopo Regional Office) and Ms Ayanda Shezi (Communications) for further consideration. The matter will be considered further by communications in liaison with our Limpopo Regional Office. The relevant colleagues are copied herein and you may liaise with them further.”

On 4 February 2020, following days of radio silence, Our Burning Planet did liaise with these DMRE officials further. We copied Kharivhe on the mail, who again referred us to the “relevant persons”. As of this writing, no response had been received.

Whatever was going on, the buck was being passed — in the end, DMRE did not dispute that the prospecting licence granted to the Mammba Metal Group was illegitimate. But would Mammba really go ahead with the mining phase now that he had found the wealth in Venda’s most sacred ground? Would he secure the investors? Had he secured a few already?

A Lexis report requested by Our Burning Planet revealed that Mammba Metal Group was registered in August 2013, with Thinawanga Ernest Mammba as the only active director. The company website, while it promised a range of mining-related, agricultural and tourism services, showed no evidence of any business actually having been done. But that didn’t mean Mammba himself was ineffective — as president of the International Revelation Congress, a small political party that ran on a Christian evangelical ticket, he merged with Agang to contest the 2014 general elections and was part of a coalition that won two parliamentary seats.

From the brief statement that Our Burning Planet managed to glean from Mammba, it was apparent that he had every intention of converting his prospecting licence into a major mining payday. Assuming he could raise the finance, with DMRE’s “enforcement and compliance” people happy to sit on their hands, that left only the Tshivhase Royal Council to stop him — and yet, here too, ranking members of the family had been implicated in serious improprieties, raising the possibility that their word was not their bond.

Meanwhile, for the Venda healers and the indigenous guardians of the sacred sites, it was as if their Vatican or Jerusalem was at real risk of being destroyed. And in a world without Lake Fundudzi or the Thathe Vondo Forest, it would not only be them that would mourn.

As Makaulule told Our Burning Planet when we first met her in August 2018: “Our zwfihos, our sacred sites, have been chosen by nature, not man.” DM

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