On 16 November 2020, Nonhle Mbuthuma, spokesperson for the Amadiba Crisis Committee, awoke to find an SMS sent at 10.40 the previous evening. It opened with a staggering threat: “You are the next, 1. bazooka 2. sbu 3. nonhle.”
Bazooka refers to Sikhosiphe “Bazooka” Radebe, the first chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee who was slain by two gunmen in 2016.
Sbu refers to Sibusiso Mqadi, the second chairperson, who died on 7 November 2020 after being admitted to hospital for severe abdominal pain.
The message was clear: there is a target on Nonhle’s back.
While terrifying, it was not the first death threat. In July, Nonhle, Sbu and a third leader received a similar SMS. Shortly after that a member of the community made this confession: “I have been approached by the gang of seven, who demanded that Nonhle Mbuthuma be taken out, because she rules the village and ‘blocks development’.”
The affidavit I quote from names the gang who approached them. It has been shared with the police and will be made public in due course.
So, what was the development Nonhle was accused of blocking? The South African National Road Agency Limited’s (Sanral’s) N2 Wild Coast Toll Road.
We cannot take these threats lightly. Globally, human rights defenders like Nonhle Mbuthuma are under attack. More than 300 heroes were murdered in 2019 alone.
Environmental activists under attack
Meanwhile, the SAPS continues to fail to deliver justice to Bazooka Radebe’s family.
While there are no hard and fast rules, the consensus is that increased publicity often increases protection and decreases risk for human rights defenders. Following this advice, the Amadiba Crisis Committee released a press statement about the threat to Nonhle (in addition to laying charges with the local police).
Sanral felt compelled to respond. Its press statement, headed “Sanral condemns threats of violence and intimidation”, opens with condemnation of “any threats of violence” and then “rejects violence and intimidation as a means of achieving any goal”.
An excellent start. Deceptively so.
Instead of expanding on their condemnation of violence, announcing measures to de-escalate tensions, exhorting the local elites they work with to refrain from intimidation, or calling for arrests of the criminals, Sanral spends the rest of its statement defending itself and the toll road route it insists on imposing on the community. The next day its project manager, Craig McLachlan, doubled down.
These two blasts at Nonhle and the crisis committee not only fail to reflect any sensitivity or commitment to Nonhle’s safety in a tumultuous context. They are also littered with falsehoods and misdirections.
Nonhle and the community are perfectly capable of responding to Sanral themselves. Four years ago, Nonhle dealt with the agency’s “White Man’s Burden” complex incisively in an article.
That said, as part of the Amadiba community’s legal team I write this to urgently correct some of the falsehoods and misdirections as they go to the heart of the community’s dispute with Sanral.
I write this with some emotion. I spent hours arguing with police who tried to prevent independent experts from attending Bazooka Radebe’s autopsy in 2016. I attended Fikile Ntshangase’s autopsy. Sbu Mqadi was buried this weekend.
I am sick and tired of our clients having to risk their lives to stand up for the most basic rights. And I am sick and tired of Sanral distorting our clients’ fight.
The community’s dispute with Sanral
At the outset, it is important to make it clear what the dispute is not about. It is not about whether Sanral can build a toll road through the Wild Coast.
Sanral understandably wants that fight. This is why the media statement says that the “overwhelming majority of local communities support the development of this crucial major infrastructure project”. But that just isn’t the dispute. The community has repeatedly made it clear that if other communities allow Sanral to build the toll road, that is their right.
The dispute is merely about what route the toll road will take.
The route Sanral wants would run about 3km from the coast and intersect perfectly with proposed access roads for the Xolobeni mine that the community has been fighting against for two decades. The road would also take the land, slice the community in half and pollute it, something the residents reject. They want a route that would remain 10km inland and not subsidise the Xolobeni mine.
Sanral’s falsehoods and misdirections are all aimed at attacking that reasonable demand.
The first misdirection is Sanral’s denial that it has or will participate “in illegal activities”.
No one has ever suggested Sanral’s direct involvement in death threats.
Our concern is rather Sanral’s overreliance on local politicians and businessmen to sort out its problems.
Sanral shows no concern whatsoever for the conflict it stokes with this approach.
The first falsehood is that Sanral’s preferred route has never changed: “Sanral had pointed out that the route for the road was identified in 1979 and was included in network planning in the 1980s, long before minerals were discovered in Xolobeni.” But that just ain’t so.
And the person who disproves Sanral’s assertion is Craig McLachlan himself. In March 2019 he made a PowerPoint presentation on the history of the route of the toll road. That presentation correctly notes that the original route for the toll road was known as “the Red Route” (a route that remained 10km inland and would not subsidise the Xolobeni mine).
As McLachlan points out in his presentation (see the slide below), it was “the Red Route” – not Sanral’s preferred route – that was “included in network planning in the 1980s, long before minerals were discovered in Xolobeni”.
It was only after “minerals were discovered in Xolobeni” that the route was changed to one that would subsidise the extraction of those minerals.
What the community wants is a return to the original route “included in network planning in the 1980s” or another route that doesn’t subsidise the mine. A simple request. Or so one would have thought.
Next, Sanral claims that “it was agreed with all stakeholders at the meeting that the planning of the N2 Wild Coast Road project long predated the discovery of the minerals in Xolobeni by more than a decade”.
Again, this is simply false. As the press statement of Sanral notes, Nonhle participated in the meeting. She confirms that it is true that McLachlan stated that the route predated the discovery of minerals in the meeting. But that statement was vigorously disputed in that meeting. There simply was no agreement with all stakeholders.
Again, a glaring falsehood.
Sanral then makes an interesting move. It argues that “these facts are evidence that the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road is not being built to allow easier access to the proposed Xolobeni mine. Sanral is not involved in mining and the road is not being built to facilitate mining activities in the area.”
Of course “these facts” aren’t, indeed, facts. More fundamentally though, this is a misdirection.
The point is not that Sanral or McLachlan intend to build their preferred route to subsidise the Xolobeni mine. Their intentions are irrelevant. The point is that Sanral’s route will subsidise the Xolobeni mine. That point is indisputable.
The backer of the Xolobeni mine – Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC) – has made it clear many times.
Just look at this picture – Sanral’s preferred route (red) intersects perfectly with mine access roads (green):
Also, mining supporters remain Sanral’s biggest allies in their push to impose the current route.
The “keynote address” of Sanral’s public participation process, inaugurated in Flagstaff in November 2006, was delivered by none other than John Barnes, the then general manager for the Xolobeni mining project.
A leading consultant in Sanral’s “land acquisition” engagements with communities was Ntsizakalo Ngalo, the former spokesperson of staunchly pro-mining and pro-toll road King Zanozuko Sigcau.
Another former spokesperson of King Sigcau is Prince Maraqana, the sole director of Keysha Investments 178 (Pty) Ltd, the BEE company that owns 28% of the Xolobeni mining project.
Again and again Sanral has relied on local politicians and elites in its community engagement strategy. These have all been mining supporters.
The Mbizana municipality, for its part, has again put “sand mining” on the Xolobeni coast in its 2019/20 integrated development plan. While Sanral may not intend to subsidise the Xolobeni mine, the backers of the mine intend to ensure Sanral’s route does.
Third, fourth, and fifth falsehoods
The third falsehood is that the Inland Mzamba route – a route the community would welcome since it remains 10km inland – “was found non-feasible”. Again, that’s just wrong.
While Sanral’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) did find there would be higher costs associated with the Inland Mzamba route (a finding that will be disputed in an upcoming article), its conclusion was not that the route was “non-feasible”. Not at all. Instead, the assessment did not take the Inland Mzamba route because “it was considered that the Inland Mzamba route would provide no advantage over Sanral’s preferred route”.
And this disposes of the fourth falsehood, that “if there was a better route, then [the Department of] Environmental Affairs would have approved that route and Sanral would be building that route”. It simply isn’t the department’s role to dictate to applicants what the best option is.
Yes, there is a duty to consider alternatives in an EIA. But that is not for the department to select the best option against an applicant’s wishes. This was confirmed by a recent PowerPoint presentation by the department in Parliament, which stated “very few EIAs actually change the development proposed”. For the most part, an applicant’s preferred option is respected unless there are overwhelming reasons to choose an alternative.
That’s clearly what happened here. The Inland Mzamba route was not carried forward because it did not clearly offer an advantage over the route described in the EIA as “Sanral’s preferred route”.
If Sanral had preferred the Inland Mzamba route, there is no basis in its reports to suggest that approval would have been refused.
Which brings up the fifth falsehood, which doubles as a misdirection. It is: “The committee also accepted that to reopen the environmental impact assessment process to relook at an inland route would delay the project by several years and would be unlikely to come to a different conclusion.”
Again, it is just plain wrong to state that the committee accepted this was true. Yes, McLachlan made this statement. No, it was not “accepted” by the committee. Again, a gratuitous falsehood.
More fundamentally, though, the statement that this change would cause a long delay is wrong. It’s not true that moving the route inland would take “several years”. The EIA regulations provide the following timelines for obtaining an environmental authorisation:
If Sanral would respect the community’s decision it could have an approval by mid-2022.
This delay pales in comparison with the five-year delay Sanral faces because the Aveng Strabag Joint Venture pulled out of the Mtentu bridge contract after the Jama community’s frustration at Sanral’s disrespect boiled over.
More importantly, if Sanral moved the route it would have a route with community approval. Yes, that will cause some delay. But the real risk of delay is attempting to barge ahead without community consent.
Whether they are linked or not, Sanral should learn something from the Xolobeni mine. After years of fighting with this community, mining is no closer today than it was 20 years ago. Indeed, in November 2018 the community won the #Right2SayNo to the project in the Pretoria High Court.
Sanral claims it will respect that court victory by always obtaining “community consent to acquire the land”. That consent is simply not going to be given. What could possibly delay the project more?
Towards a solution
So, it is clear that Sanral relies upon falsehoods and misdirections to justify itself. This is understandable. However well intended McLachlan may be (I have only experienced him as a committed professional), his mandate as project manager is a narrow one: to build the road as quickly and cheaply as possible on its current route.
Even if he agreed with the community, he simply cannot make the decision to change the route of the toll road.
Even his CEO, Skhumbuzo Macozoma, does not have that power. This was made clear when Macozoma, in April 2017, patiently listened to the community’s forceful arguments for more than an hour in a video that simply must be watched to be believed:
At the end of the meeting Macozoma promised to engage with the powers that be about the community’s demands that the route be moved inland. He promised to return. The community is still waiting for him.
But that is not the end of the matter. A solution is possible. That solution requires government’s highest levels to choose to respect the community’s decision to have the toll road’s route moved to one that won’t subsidise the mine.
A political intervention has been launched, led by Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula and the Eastern Cape’s premier, Oscar Mabuyane. So far, the signs are not promising.
Mabuyane has long backed the Xolobeni mine. Mbalula’s first trip to the area sought to ignore the community entirely. Instead of engaging with the community, Mbalula announced that “the government would not allow people with hidden agendas to stop development”.
The suggestion that Nonhle Mbuthuma is risking her life as part of a “hidden agenda” is deeply troubling on its own. The community has no “hidden agenda”. Their agenda is known. Sbu Mqadi explained it before his death: “And then they said no, we prefer the land, we choose the land, that’s where the fight was started because the people were choosing the land and the government was saying no.”
Nonhle Mbuthuma explained the community’s agenda in the same terms in this striking footage:
But Mbalula’s taunt that Nonhle won’t be “allowed” to “stop development” is more troubling still. If she refuses to comply, what will happen to her, Minister?
Painfully, the minister’s language is in total alignment with toll road supporters’ plot to “take out” Nonhle for “blocking development” described above. This is utterly unacceptable from the African National Congress, the liberation movement Nonhle’s community backed for so long.
A better way is possible. Mbalula could transform the Eastern Cape permanently by respecting the community’s demands and unlocking the impasse. If he refuses, President Cyril Ramaphosa must act.
Until they do, we all must stand in solidarity with Nonhle and her community and demand:
● Swift police action to arrest Bazooka’s murderers and those threatening Nonhle Mbuthuma’s murder. DM/MC
When sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings half your brain remains alert.
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