Maverick Citizen


South Africa’s under-siege rural black folks are dying for the right to say no to mining

South Africa’s under-siege rural black folks are dying for the right to say no to mining
Activists from eight provinces gathered at Xolobeni. (Photo: Supplied)

The establishment has become so tone-deaf to the point of not realising how much it is humiliating, undignifying and killing people who have suffered immensely under the brutal and oppressive regimes of colonialism and apartheid.

On Human Rights Day I visited Sigidi village, on invitation by the Amadiba Crisis Committee, in the wider area now known as Xolobeni, at Mbizana in the Eastern Cape. The historical and valiant contemporary struggles by the people of Xolobeni are well documented. Since 2007, the community has been resisting the proposed mining of mineral resources found on the coastline of Xolobeni. These minerals range from ilmenite to titanium-iron oxide, rutile, zircon and leucoxene.

The people of Xolobeni have endured seeds of division sowed by collaborators of potential mining companies and local elites. This more than 15-year battle has cost some people (like Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe) their lives, while some activists have been displaced from their homes for fear of being killed. 

At the centre of resistance is the desire to restore and amplify people’s power. Our democratically elected government, made up of former liberation fighters who used to chant “the people shall govern”, has completely lost sight of this noble pursuit. The people are not governing. They are at the mercy of politicians with cavalier appetites and blasé treatment of people’s plight.

A toxic intersection of corruption and compromised leadership

The story of Xolobeni is laden with the toxic intersection of corruption and compromised leadership. There is also poor visioning on alternative forms of development besides relying on extractive economies. 

Affirmation of the right to say no. (Photo: Supplied)

This governance crisis has allowed thuggery to rear its ugly head, rob families of their kin and breakdown social bonds in the community through attempts to isolate activists. In fact, the activists have earned labels, often characterised as rogue members of the community who are influenced by external people with donor funding. 

The department is stuck in modes of yesteryear and fails to understand what ‘informed consent’ for communities truly means

Yet our courts continue to uphold the pursuits of these activists. This work has led to our common law evolving to confirm the “right to say no” by agreeing that mining-affected communities (no matter how rural) must be given an opportunity to exercise their informed consent. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Game-changing Xolobeni judgment orders applications for mining licences to be made public

Simply put, communities must be given space, time, resources and expertise to scrutinise the mining licence application to the same or similar degree as the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. However, the department is stuck in modes of yesteryear and fails to understand what “informed consent” for communities truly means.

Land activists from different parts of South Africa pledge solidarity. (Photo: Supplied)

For this reason, discovery of mineral deposits in rural areas leads to deadly resistance by residents who are fighting to have a say and a stake in the development of their communities. 

It is unfathomable that in a “democratic” South Africa, people are dying for simply having a VOICE, for demanding their POWER and emphasising their HUMANITY. The establishment has become tone-deaf to the point of not realising how much it is humiliating, undignifying and killing people who have suffered immensely under the brutal and oppressive regimes of colonialism and apartheid. 

All over South Africa, rural black folks are under siege. Their sin is to distinguish right from wrong – the very basis of an ethical society where integrity is prized. This value of integrity is fast evaporating from our society. We are at the mercy of deviants pretending to be noble governors of our affairs.

Power of the collective

This year’s Human Rights Day commemoration theme at Xolobeni was “Solidarity festival in a time of big crisis”, an apt realisation that for the struggle to grow and continue being impactful it will be through building solidarity. Crisis is often overwhelming, and its resolution lies in the collective rather than a select few or self-appointed group of individuals. 

From Sekhukhune to Namaqualand, from Xolobeni to Emalahleni, speakers celebrated the resilience and focus demonstrated by the Amadiba Crisis Committee over the years, pledging their continued solidarity. 

An overflowing venue, remembering those who were killed fighting for their rights. (Photo: Supplied)

The network is vast and at play. You can kill one, but you can never kill all of them. The plea from communities is very clear – they are demanding a new brand of politics. Politics that is about listening and prioritising the issues faced by ordinary people. For this to happen, solidarity must be at the heart of engagements towards the future. We must see and hear people. We must have practical solutions to these problems. 

Last, the mining-affected communities must align with political parties that can champion their struggles and bring about a change of government that advances the aspirations of people’s power in the context of mineral exploration, not exploitation. 

Big mining companies must also do deep soul searching and concede that costly mistakes have been made by the industry and a new approach to mining is necessary. The single focus of pursuing profits at the cost of humanity and the environment is an outdated model. It is time to focus on sustainable development and accept that not all minerals are worth extracting in the new paradigm. 

For activists to remain sane, agile, active and motivated they need multiple spaces for revival. 

Mpondo women in traditional gear in the heartland of the Mpondo revolt. (Photo: Supplied)

A Human Rights Day event with purpose. (Photo: Supplied)

This coming weekend (24 to 26 March 2023), the Constitution Hill precinct will once more be abuzz with attendees at the Human Rights Festival. This festival has, over the years, become a prominent feature on our political calendar. This year, the theme is “Seize the Power! Seize your power!” This clarion call is to all citizens who feel disempowered at the hands of politicians, to remember the people’s in-built ambition and power to act. 

This power will be tested in the coming national and provincial elections. People of different persuasions must be attracted to this ecosystem of people who now say: “2024 is our 1994.”

It is about time people of South Africa are united to chart a new political way, focused on the people. The hype about the 2024 elections will be meaningless if there is no active mechanism to forge lines of solidarity across sectors and class groups, to spread the message about the necessary change agenda for 2024. Short of this, society will drown in its own peril and possibly implode as those leading it continue to fiddle while the country is burning. DM/MC

Lukhona Mnguni is head of policy and research at the Rivonia Circle. His main background is in political science and development studies.


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