Opinionista Mary de Haas 2 November 2020

Mining company – and KZN government – have a lot to answer for after assassination of activist Fikile Ntshangase

The assassination of a rural land activist in the iMfolozi area of KwaZulu-Natal has sparked fears that others opposing an expansion of mining in the area might be at risk of violence. The killing comes just days before a Supreme Court of Appeal case will be heard in which residents are hoping to overturn a 2018 high court decision that refused to interdict the mine’s expansion.

Mary de Haas

Mary de Haas is a violence monitor and analyst.

“Xolobeni has come to KwaZulu-Natal.” These were the words of a community leader in mining-affected Mtubatuba areas when he called to advise that grandmother Fikile Ntshangase had been gunned down in her home at Ophondweni.

Mrs Ntshangase was vice-chairperson of one of seven subcommittees of the iMfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) for Ophondweni and neighbouring areas, and a powerful voice in opposing the expansion of mining by Tendele Coal Mining, which will displace rural farmers from their homes. The MCEJO, which represents thousands of subsistence farmers in the broader area affected by the mine, are applicants in two court cases challenging the expansion of the mine.

The assassination followed a stepped-up campaign by the mining company and the KwaZulu-Natal government since February 2020 to persuade applicants to withdraw the court challenge and for those most affected by the expansion – including in the Ophondweni area – to accept the compensation the mine is offering.

During the past few months, several MCEJO members have been allegedly offered R300,000 by the mine to withdraw the cases. Some have been seduced by this offer and their membership of the MCEJO has been suspended. All those refusing to sign their properties over to Tendele Mining have allegedly received death threats – some linked to local traditional leadership. One survived a drive-by shooting at her home and one applicant was attacked in his home. The threat has been ever-present, with suspicious vehicles seen in the area at night, and although the local police station deployed patrols, the deep rural nature of the area has rendered comprehensive protection of residents difficult. Locals have also devised their own community watch strategies.

With the Supreme Court of Appeal case due to have a virtual hearing on 3 November, the pro-mining campaign has been stepped up during the past week. On 15 October, former MCEJO members who are now colluding with the mine were among those who disrupted a meeting the organisation’s representatives were having with their legal team and one prominent leader was assaulted. A case is being opened. This leader, who works in another area, has been warned that his life will be in danger if he visits his family home.

On Monday 19 October, Mrs Ntshangase, who was widowed early this year and was staying in Ophondweni with her toddler grandson, reported that her dogs were barking in her yard, suggesting that there were intruders in the vicinity. She has been described as a very powerful voice against capitulation to the demands of the mining company. One of her close associates in this struggle has described her as a leader in the Somkhele/Mpukunyoni committee who worked tirelessly for the community, someone who “exemplified honesty, integrity and the courage to speak her mind … she did not care about being liked, but cared about what she believed was right”.

These qualities probably cost her her life.

The strategies used by the mining company in this area are typical of those found in all areas in which such companies operate, and involve dangling incentives before impoverished residents, with the inevitable consequences of stirring deep community divisions. These invariably lead to violence and deaths. In rural areas which are difficult to police, it takes great determination and courage to counter these strategies. Mrs Ntshangase exemplified the type of leadership that promotes community solidarity and resistance. There are other leaders of this calibre in the MCEJO and, if anything, the assassination of Mama Ntshangase has renewed their determination to step up the fight against exploitation by the mine.

What is truly disgraceful is that the mine is being supported by the KwaZulu-Natal government. In June/July the Department of Community Safety and Liaison sent a staff member – apparently from its Civilian Secretariat arm (which is conspicuous in its absence whenever the threat of violence looms) to persuade community members to negotiate with the mine. Since then, after MCEJO members thought it only proper to approach the Office of the Ingonyama (King Goodwill Zwelithini) about their struggle, they have come under further government pressure via the Office of the Premier and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

This is the government that claims it needs to expropriate land without compensation to redress the land imbalance – while wilfully pushing to displace rural farmers from their family land from which they subsist, and risk their lives in the process.

Perhaps these hypocrites should ask themselves whether, with the assassination of Mrs Ntshangase, they have blood on their hands. DM

See Responses on Daily Maverick by Tendele Mining and the KwaZulu-Natal Government here

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