Maverick Citizen


‘I cried until I couldn’t anymore’ – why the desecration of ancestral graves by mines is an act of spiritual dispossession

‘I cried until I couldn’t anymore’ – why the desecration of ancestral graves by mines is an act of spiritual dispossession
With land dispossession as a result of colonialism and mining, the ancestral graves of black Africans have been desecrated and many have been left unmarked. (Photo: Santu Mofokeng / Wikipedia)

The careless relocation of people and their departed loved ones shows that dehumanisation persists even in death and that people in these mining-affected areas view mines as symbols of loss, says land activist.

This article was updated post-publication to include a comment from Glencore

It was an emotional evening at The Forge’s third land redistribution talks as people shared stories of dispossession and spiritual displacement as a result of forced removals by mining companies.

Wednesday’s discussion focused on dispossession and the desecration of ancestral graves by mining corporations. The talk was given by Dr Dineo Skosana, a researcher at the Society, Work and Politics Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, who presented findings from her exploration of the subject.

Skosana said her research looked at how the phenomenon of colonialism had led to dispossessing people of their land through coal mining, specifically in areas such as eMalahleni, Mpumalanga and Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal, as well as other provinces where mining took place.

According to Skosana, “dispossession does not only encompass events of deprivation, and the loss of land and property, but also covers the loss of the incorporeal. The relocation of African ancestral graves in Tweefontein (Ogies) is discussed as an aspect of dispossession. The politics surrounding household relocations and grave exhumations illustrates how communities not only lose the material; land and tombs, but also lose their intangible possessions; ancestral connection, identity, heritage and belonging, because of mining.”

She spoke of Glencore’s open-cast mining in eMalahleni that had resulted in 120 families being displaced and moved off farms, compelling people as well as more than 1,000 graves to be relocated. Skosana said she spoke to some of the people who were removed when Glencore moved in 
“I did not want to leave so they packed my things as I sat and watched. Inside the truck they combined my things with my neighbour’s. My livestock was left on the farm. I had 16 cows and 21 sheep. I lost my livestock to theft, starvation and illness. I lost it all. The mine promised to compensate us but they didn’t. Where are my cattle today? I lost everything” said Bab’ Samson.

Skosana explained that people being relocated to townships meant that the size of land they now occupied was much smaller, and infertile, and that there was a greater reliance on money to survive as opposed to how people used to live off farming. “If you have no money in the township you will sleep hungry, unlike in the farmlands.”

She also spoke of her research and experience in Somkhele, which is mined by Tendele for coal and anthracite and is on tribal land that is presided over by chiefs on behalf of the community.

One resident, Bab’ Magubane, had told her how the mine approached only the chief and that people were shut out of the consultation. 

“They told us that the mine is coming. They told us there would be jobs and no one would be poor. They said if you have a tractor and a van you could use these in the mine to generate an income, so we agreed. We were not asked whether we want the mine, we were told. The mine never kept any of its promises. I had to sell my tractor and truck.”

Another resident, Bab’ Mkhwanazi, told Skosana that when the mine came, at first they said they would not be relocated, but his family was then relocated without consultation. He found people erecting a fence in his yard and couldn’t believe it when he saw them break down his house. “nga khala sisi, ngakhala ngaze nga thula” (“I cried sister, I cried until I couldn’t anymore”).


Skosana said that during these removals people also ended up leaving their ancestral graves because they buried their loved ones on the land they lived on. In Tweefontein, for example, the graves that remained on the mining land were so hazardous that visiting them required putting on protective mining gear. 

In instances where graves were excavated for reburial they were often desecrated because it was not done by the proper authorities but by regular funeral parlours who simply dug up the remains with shovels, dismembering skeletons in the process, said Skosana. She further explained that the rituals that accompany the proper burial of African people were not observed, which is sacrilege to African spiritual practices honouring the dead.

Some graves had no dates or even the names of the people buried there because they were just taken and placed by mines without consultation with families. What was particularly disrespectful, Skosana said, was that some bore only the names of the funeral parlour. 

Land reform can only happen by targeting private property ownership, says Tembeka Ngcukaitobi

Speaking to families while trying to understand the psychological and spiritual impact of the careless relocation of graves, Skosazna was told by Mr Nziba, a Tweefontein resident: We no longer have the concept that the grave is your final resting place.”

Skosana pointed out that the relocation of graves had turned into a commercial competition between archaeological companies and funeral parlours who saw it as an opportunity to make money by bidding for contracts with mining companies.

The careless relocation of people and their departed loved ones shows that dehumanisation persists even in death and that people in these mining-affected areas see mines as symbols of loss, Skosana said.

Tweefontein has close to 300 graves that are completely unmarked and people are complaining that they don’t know where their loved ones are. Skosana also spoke about the indignity of the logistics of removals, such as  people being put in black plastic bags after having been exhumed, bearing in mind that “this is an elerly person, someone’s grandfather, great-grandfather”.

During her research she had also come across instances where people had been removed from land under the pretext of nature conservation and the creation of game farms and private nature resorts. 

Skosana submitted that part of the problem is that there is inadequate provision in legislation for how meaningful consultation and compensation by mining companies is meant to take place, and that companies are exploiting that gap, resulting in dispossession. Some people were paid a paltry R1,500 for the removal of their loved ones’ graves. “This tells us something about their South African citizenship status; what does not having land mean?”

She said South Africa had a market-driven mineral law which is about profits and did not interrogate the losses that come with mining, and that when mining companies see land they see only the material as something that can be replaced easily, not understanding people’s attachment and its cultural significance. DM/MC

Glencore responds: 

Glencore was not consulted for comment prior to the article being published and refutes the claims being made in the article. The journalist pursued a one-sided approach on the matter that provides a false perspective for the audience.

Glencore follows the grave relocation process stipulated by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) which entails, amongst various other aspects, an advertising or notice period to identify families and graves and extensive consultation with families that come forward prior
to the process being undertaken.

Glencore strongly affirms its commitment to uphold human rights and respecting cultural beliefs and practices, by dealing with community members openly and transparently. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • virginia crawford says:

    A very very sad situation: disruption, dispossession and disrespect. The practice of chiefs and traditional leaders being consulted is profoundly undemocratic. The same thing is going to happen to local people in Eastern Cape as mining moves in. It is so depressingly predictable.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    Why is this disrespect and disregard of African cultural observances for the dead still happening so far into ANC rule? Why does not one of the people who claim to care about the poor ( and are paid handsomely to do so ) champion their cause? It is shameful and beggars belief. If it happened to my family’s remains I would be totally traumatised too.

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