South Africa

OP-ED

The struggle for Mfolozi and the murder of Fikile Ntshangase: Who is blackmailing who?

Fikile Ntshangase was part of a group taking legal action to prevent the expansion of the Somkhele coal mine adjacent to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal. (Photos: Rob Symons)

When people are removed from their land to make way for a coal mine, how do you put a value on their ancestral connections, the springs that flow even in times of drought, the sweet summer grass, the trees which sheltered their goats from summer storms, the ground where their umbilical cords are buried, the view of the rolling hills that framed their childhoods, their clean air and fertile soil?

Two weeks ago, while chopping onions for her family’s supper in her Ophondweni home, 63-year-old Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down by unknown assailants. 

A motive for her murder was not hard to find. As deputy chairperson of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (Mcejo), Ntshangase was a leading figure in community efforts to fight the expansion of the Somkhele coal mine. 

When she was killed, she became yet another martyr in the increasingly ruthless global fight to force rural communities to allow mining on their doorsteps. Ntshangase’s death has been widely publicised, provoking widespread protest and dismay. So far there have been no arrests. 

Let us hope that progress is made more swiftly than in the case of Sikhosiphi Bazooka” Rhadebe, an activist from the Xolobeni area on the Wild Coast, who was resisting titanium mining in his community. 

He was shot dead in March 2016. Family members alleged that SAPS sabotaged the investigation by refusing to interview witnesses or collect evidence. Four years on, no progress has been made, and other Xolobeni activists face constant threats of violence.

Ntshangase’s death highlights again the environmental and social costs of coal mines, which I wrote about in a story published in Daily Maverick one year ago. 

There is much complexity in this story, but the underlying narrative remains stark and sharply relevant at a time when environmental and social injustice threaten our very survival. 

In response to Ntshangase’s death, the CEO of the Tendele Coal Mining, Jan du Preez, claimed that the mine has brought great benefits to the area, including 1,600 jobs, contracts, programmes to assist with studying and learnerships, creches and so on. 

Among these benefits, according to Tendele’s community manager, Nathi Kunene, is training in basic agricultural principles. It is somewhat ironic to be teaching people how to farm while degrading the lands on which they do it.

Its mind-boggling how much we pay. Its close to blackmail.

According to Du Preez, the mine faces closure if new areas cannot be excavated. And, if the mine closes, “40,000 people will lose either a job, a contract or a training opportunity”.

Du Preez claimed that the payouts to directly affected families in the Ophondweni and Emalahleni villages areas were, in some cases, 10 times more than the market value of their home; that the average payout was R750,000.

“Its mind-boggling how much we pay. Its close to blackmail,” said Du Preez.

The company’s own records show that not all families were offered R750,000. According to documents seen by Mail & Guardian reporters, many could be offered much less, the lowest amount being only R10,870.  

However, on the face of it, it may seem a generous offer, and for people living on the margins on hardscrabble traditional farms, R750,000 may be very tempting. 

But that number becomes less compelling when you consider what is at stake. Tendele calculates the payout by evaluating the structures on the land – but not the land itself. 

This is because, although most families have been living there for generations, none of them own the land. It is held by the Ingonyama Trust, supposedly for the benefit of the community. 

The question of why the people who live on the land don’t own it takes us down the rabbit hole of land ownership in this country, with its tangled burrows of dispossession, of the trickery and coercion whereby colonialists wrestled the land from those who were living on it; of deals made to grant the Ingonyama Trust control over millions of acres; of deals still being made to enable mining companies to gouge out and render non-arable and uninhabitable many of those acres, and of who has and who will really benefit from those deals.

It is in the context of this troubled history that Du Preezs allegations of “blackmail” should be considered.

In a world governed by property rights, compensation for the structures alone may be legal, but can it be regarded as fair? And if so, is the market value a remotely relevant instrument? 

How do you assess the value, for example, of a traditional hut (indlu yangenhla) built and rebuilt over centuries, where for generations a family has sustained contact with their ancestors, performed rituals that give meaning and purpose to their lives, found comfort from misfortune and celebrated joy… Is it really only worth the price of the mud, sticks and grass that constitute its housing?

When the people are relocated from their homes for the mine, they lose far more than the structures on the land for which they are compensated. 

Their real wealth is in the land beneath their feet. And when they lose that, they lose the right to live on the land of their forefathers, they lose ancestral connections, they lose the springs that flow even in times of drought, the sweet summer grass, the trees which sheltered their goats from summer storms, the ground where their umbilical cords are buried, the view of the rolling hills that framed their childhoods, clean air and fertile soil.

Even assuming that R750,000, (or whatever they receive) is adequate compensation for this loss, the only people who receive a payout at all are those so-called “directly affected communities” who have to actually vacate their homes and lands for the mine. 

But the mines are surrounded by thousands of homesteads whose residents are not offered compensation as they are not classed as “directly affected”.

These are some of the ways in which the people who get no compensation are “not directly affected” (drawn from the articles cited, and interviews I have conducted with people in the area):

  •       The walls of their homes crack and sometimes collapse because of the constant blasting, which also affects their mental health, as do the glaring spotlights. Work shifts run day and night and through the weekends;
  •       The air is filled with coal dust, leading to headaches, lung disease, asthma and other respiratory illnesses;
  •       Water scarcity: residents report that springs have been blocked by the mine; in the drought of 2016, according to Attorney Kirsten Youens, the mine sank boreholes into the dry river bed of the Imfolozi, without obtaining authorisation – thereby depleting critical groundwater sources;
  •       Pollution of water sources: open-cast mines contaminate groundwater and pollute surface water through the processing of ore;
  •       Their animals grow sick. The intestines of cows, which used to be a delicacy reserved for older men, are inedible because they are black with coal dust;
  •       Animals have to be tethered to stop them wandering onto the huge dumps of fragmented rock, and falling and breaking limbs; and
  •       The rainwater which many homesteads capture from their roofs and store in tanks has become unusable, as it is full of black grit – depriving households of a critical water source.

I don’t know what representatives of Tendele told the community when they first came with the mine proposals some 15 years ago. I have been told by those who were there that many promises were made, but not many written down or signed. 

I doubt the mine agents told communities about all the effects described above. I doubt Tendele told them that all the blessings that flow from the mine – the jobs and learnerships and so forth – would come to an end when the coal ran out in a decade, and the only way to secure them further was to agree to another huge portion of earth being hauled out. 

More removals, more noise, more coal dust, less water, more sick animals. 

And when that ran out, another mine would be needed… and another, and another… until perhaps all the 220km² for which Tendele has mining rights has been turned from fertile grazing lands into a toxic gravel pit hollowed out for its anthracite. Whatever was promised at the first meetings – when Tendele came to the community with the latest expansion plans in 2018 – people were a little wiser.  

Many had not received the promised blessings and knew all too well the consequences of living next to a coal mine. Mcejo was formed and the community resolved to launch a court application to ensure that the existing mine complied with environmental regulations, and that further expansion was stopped. 

But by then powerful interests in the community were heavily invested in the mine. Traditional leaders, politicians and local businessmen all had connections with lucrative contracts – and it is likely that most of these people lived far enough from the mine not to experience its negative impacts. 

Our resolve is based on honouring a strong woman; an anchor of our community.

As is the way of these things, those who benefit most from mining tend to be those whose daily lives are least impacted. I doubt that Du Preez and other managers are woken at night by blasting, or have to drink water contaminated by coal grit.

And so, pressure was put on the activists, with increasing menace. 

In April this year, there were two drive-by shootings, targeting Sabelo Dladla and Tholakele Mthetwa. Other Mcejo members faced repeated death threats and were told of a hit list in circulation. 

Then, in October, Mam’Ntshangase paid the ultimate price.

The mine created 1,600 jobs. But in the process it has destroyed many livelihoods. Situated on the border of the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Game Reserve, this area has rich tourist potential which could have been enhanced with investment in creative community-led projects, but the growing excavations  for the mine are rapidly destroying this possibility. 

This, and the damage caused to the land, has made the community more dependent on these jobs. Now, to sustain those 1,600 jobs, the mine needs to obliterate many more homes and livelihoods, leaving a great swathe of destroyed land which is unlikely to recover any time soon – if ever.

Which begs the question: just who is blackmailing who?

While the mine is seriously compromising or destroying the livelihoods of many on its borders, these impacts are overshadowed by the even bigger threat of catastrophic climate change. 

Not only are these communities suffering from the process of extracting the coal, but they are also beginning to suffer seriously from the consequences of burning it, as drought and floods induced by climate change ravage their area and many others beyond.  

And by destroying topsoil and grasslands, the mine is turning land that functions as a carbon sink into a top carbon emitter.

Du Preez expressed regret at Ntshangase’s death, but suggested that violence was inevitable as the mine was being “held to ransom” by 19 of the 145 families in two designated mining areas who had refused offers of compensation to relocate. Du Preez’s suggestion that it is the resistance of anti-mining activists that is causing violence and tension in the community is disingenuous.  

This resistance would not be “causing violence” in the community if there was no mine to resist. But this mine is spoken of by its proponents as an inevitability, and has been presented to residents as such. 

The question asked of them is not, do you want this mine? but this mine is coming whether you want it or not – how much are you willing to sacrifice to try to stop it?

Perhaps in years gone by, coal mining could have been justified as a necessary evil. Now, with growing evidence of the devastation caused by extracting and burning fossil fuels, and with the rapidly growing capacity for renewables such as wind and solar to provide our country with safe, cheap and clean energy, coal mining is becoming increasingly indefensible.

In 2019 I interviewed Sabelo Dladla, the son of a dedicated anti-mining activist who took up the struggle against Tendele after his father’s death. In April 2020, armed men stormed Sabelo’s homestead and raked it with gunfire. He had to go into hiding and subsequently withdrew his name as the leading applicant in the case against Tendele. 

I don’t know what finally made him withdraw, but I do know that not only had he faced bullets himself, he’d grown up watching his family live in terror of these attacks when they were directed at his father.

Bullying and intimidating communities into accepting the coal mine is not the same as getting community assent. No one should have to choose between staying alive and defending their right to raise a family on ancestral land in a safe, clean, unpolluted environment. 

These communities are not blackmailing the mining companies. They are protecting our fragile earth from yet more destruction, and they should be saluted as the heroes they are. 

But far from coming to their support, the South African government continues to promote fossil fuels, grant mining rights without consulting those affected, promote the interests of mining companies over communities and drag their feet on investigating threats and acts of violence.

In the words of Medical Nziba, This wont stop us from continuing with our struggle to fight against mining on our land. 

“Our resolve is based on honouring a strong woman; an anchor of our community.” 

Brave words indeed. 

Let’s hope that in this instance at least, their struggle will be rewarded and justice will be found for Mam’Ntshangase. DM

Bridget Pitt is a South African author with a keen interest in environmental and social justice issues. She has published poetry, short fiction, non-fiction and three novels in South Africa, Canada and the United Kingdom. Her work has been short-listed for the Commonwealth book prize; Wole Soyinka African Literature Award and Commonwealth Short Story Award, and was runner-up in the Short Sharp Stories competition.

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