Wild Coast mining conflict: Xolobeni escalates
- John Clarke
- 04 May 2015 02:06 (South Africa)
There is a lovely stream that bubbles and trickles its way down through the Amadiba chieftainship on the Pondoland Wild Coast to feed the Kwanyana River, which flows into a coastal estuary that is lovely beyond any singing of it (with apologies to Alan Paton). The Amadiba call it “Rholobeni” but the subtle pronunciation and spelling was beyond Colonial settlers, so on maps it is rendered “Xolobeni”. The stream has imparted its name to a store and nearby school which overlooks a beautiful panorama of green hills and blue sea with expanses of ochre red dunes in between, along the coast. Do a Google image search on the word “Xolobeni” today and an array of pictures present themselves that do not match up to the stream, store or school, but to protest action against mining. That is because a Perth-based mining entrepreneur, Mark Victor Caruso, chose to name his venture to mine the ochre red dune dunes that can be seen in many of the pictures, the Xolobeni Mineral Sands project. The windswept dunes contain some nine million tons of ilmenite, source of the space-age mineral titanium.
Three weeks ago Environmental Impact Assessment consultants sent by Caruso faced a difficult challenge to consult with residents of the six rural village neighbourhoods community (Luphithini, Mnyameni, Mtolani, Mdatya Mpindweni and Nyavini) about the latest mining rights application that he had lodged (see the report). The meeting did not last long and the team, led by EIA consultant Pieter Badenhorst, was told not to come back.
Last Wednesday, on 29 April 2015, confident that since they had the authority of the Amadiba chief Lunga Baleni to back them up, Badenhorst returned with a larger team, who travelled in a convoy led by Caruso’s local agent and community ‘fixer’, Zamile Qunya to gather data for the EIA, their difficulty increased. Soon after the convoy had entered the Amadiba Tribal area, word travelled faster than their convoy and by the time they had reached turnoff to Xolobeni, the consultants were confronted by a barricade of logs and brushwood on the road, manned by an ever-growing group of angry residents.
Believing that opposition to the mining proposal had been orchestrated by outsiders and was confined to a small minority of “just one village”, one of the team began to realise that Qunya had greatly exaggerated his influence and that although Chief Lunga Baleni might have had formal powers, he had forsaken his authority and respect. The betrayal of the chief is symbolised by his acceptance of a Toyota Double Cab 4x4, paid for by Caruso’s mining company MRC Ltd., and offset from a loan of R14 million that he had provided to his BEE partner Blue Bantry Investments Pty Ltd., of which Qunya is a founder director.
When more local residents arrived to reinforce the barricade and stiffen the protest, the consultants decided to retreat before things got even nastier.
Even leading members of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, a structure formed in 2007 to oppose the first mining rights application by MRC, were surprised by the militancy shown.
Interventions are now underway to ensure the situation does not escalate into the archetypal scenario that fictional films like Blood Diamond and Avatar portray. Or, worse still, the real scenarios that occurred 55 years ago during the Mpondo Uprising, and three years ago at Marikana.
(Ironically, Blood Diamond was filmed in the Amadiba area in 2006, with the Mzamba estuary dressed up to look like an alluvial diamond mine in Sierra Leone. It is an even greater irony that it was in this in this very area that in 1957 a kindling conflict commenced over land rights and the use and misuse of natural resources.)
Among the Xolobeni Google search images, there is a picture of an old man holding a knobkierie alongside a young woman. The old man is ‘Bhalasheleni’ Mthanjelwa Mpotomela Mthwa, one of the Indunas (traditional councillors) who preside at Imbizos held every Thursday at the Umgungdlovu Komkhulu (Tribal court room). The young woman is Nonhle Mbuthuma, whose story is told in the documentary film The Shore Break, and making a deep impression on international audiences.
Until his recent death Bhalasheleni represented the residents of the Mtolane village neighbourhood. He died on 11 April and his body was laid to rest on 18 April 2015, in the family grave at Mtolane village, overlooking the Xolobeni mineral sands. Had the local residents not stopped the convoy, the Badenhorst and his team would have passed close to his homestead and seen his verdant crop fields and livestock grazing among the coastal dunes.
The historical memory of residents like Nonhle, who will have to make way if Caruso’s mining scheme ever materialises, has been kept alive and fresh for at least five decades by brave and principled elders like Bhalasheleni who survived the Pondo Uprising. It still casts a long shadow on South African history.
Professor William Beinart, a specialist on Mpondo history, reports his interview with a local resident, Leonard Mdingi, telling of the first spark of the uprising:
There was a standoff in Amadiba Location, near Xolobeni store, where Mdingi’s father had been removed. One man was convicted and spent six months in prison.
The people were not consulted on anything now; people were being driven out of the land and they resented that … at one stage the police went down and were attacked by the people there and had to flee. Those were the beginnings of this Congo movement, of this Pondoland revolt, 1957, 58, 59. The dispute was getting hotter and hotter …
In this context, the local educated elite, such as Saul Mabude, a key member of the Bunga and advisor at the great place who lived in Isikelo location in Bizana, came under strong criticism. The attack on his homestead in March 1960 signalled the beginnings of the revolt…
Badenhorst ought to have known this. Four weeks ago I gave him a copy of a book I have written which relates that history, The Promise of Justice. Yet it appears he chose to believe Qunya and Lunga Baleni reassurances, risking the repeat of a violent episode of history.
How might that now be avoided?
It would be prudent for Caruso, Badenhorst and other stakeholders to also read what the Crown Princess of the amaMpondo, Princess Wezizwe Sigcau, said in a recent address to the World Alliance for Religion and Peace, to issue a stern warning to MRC that their investors will lose their money if they fail to respect the environmental rights of the Amadiba.
“The role of Traditional Leaders is to become custodians of the Bill of Rights on behalf of rural residents whose land rights are held under communal land tenure especially Section 24 of the Bill of Rights, “The Right to an environment that is not harmful to the health and well-being, and to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations”.
That mandate does not simply arise from the Bill of Rights only. It is a duty that is implicit in our sense of accountability to our ancestors, who are identified within the Earth. The strong attachment to the land which traditional communities have is a source of indigenous knowledge and properly understood, it is a progressive, inclusive cosmology. As the planet is increasingly compromised by a development logic that places life at the service of the economy, Traditional Leaders and customary law works from the inverse assumption. The economy must be at the service of Life. DM