Across the world, violence against environmental activists is increasing. At least 212 of these activists were killed in 2019, according to Global Witness.
In South Africa, many anti-coal activists have experienced violence, including threats, intimidation and even assassination. This is often the result of mining companies’ tactic of dividing communities who resist expansion of their mines.
This tactic is dramatically illustrated by the case of Fikile Ntshangase, the 63-year-old deputy chairperson of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO). She was shot multiple times at her home in October 2020.
Ntshangase’s “crime” was refusing to sign Tendele Coal’s compensation agreements, saying, “I cannot sell out my people. And if need be, I will die for my people.”
Her murder came after years of mining activists living under constant threat and surveillance, especially in Somkhele (KwaZulu-Natal), where a coal mine was established in the middle of an existing community with strong historical roots.
Death threats, torching of activists’ properties and threats of banishment from the villages is a daily occurrence for many communities who live in the areas being mined.
Corporate elites and traditional authorities manipulate differences within the communities, promising jobs, compensation and sometimes even bursaries for young people in return for their cooperation with mining companies.
However, many remain undeterred by these tactics and are not open to the offers of compensation which Tendele deems adequate for the relocation of homes and graves and the loss of fields and livelihoods.
Attachment to the land
‘‘The land is life. We connect to it through birth and death. The land and graves connect us to our ancestors. We work the land. We eat from it and get medicinal plants from it,” said a Mr Magubane, one of the activists who oppose mining in Somkhele, when asked why they did not accept the compensation for relocation that is being offered by Tendele Coal.
“We generate wealth and security through the land. Do you see why we do not want to move?’’
The struggle against mining and rural dispossession in Somkhele began in 2007 when Tendele colliery, a subsidiary of Petmin, began operating in the area which shares a border with the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Game Reserve.
The “negotiations” with individual families, followed by relocations, began that same year to make way for the open-cast mining of anthracite coal.
Like many local development projects in South Africa, the consultations with families were a mere formality. Meaningful consultations only took place with the Mpukunyoni traditional authority which, together with the Ingonyama Trust, administers the land.
In May 2020, Tendele launched an application in the Pietermaritzburg High Court to force 24 of 145 families to agree to move from Ophondweni and Emalahleni to allow for phase 2 of the mining to begin.
Tendele’s CEO, Jan du Preez, said, “due to prolonged negotiations with the families who live on the proposed mining areas, the mine is in a difficult position… 100 employees are on the verge of losing their jobs and 1,500 employees will further lose their jobs if the situation does not change by June 2020”.
This is a common tactic used to pressure families to agree to relocate.
It wasn’t until 2019 that South Africa got regulatory guidelines for the compensation of mining-induced dispossession, when the department of mineral resources released the mine community resettlement guidelines.
The guidelines do not stipulate how much compensation is considered to be adequate. The decision, therefore, is at the discretion of the mining companies themselves.
In its application to the high court in May 2020, Tendele adopted an irregular market approach for the compensation of what they deemed replaceable structures and items.
The company broke down the compensation figures to cover, among other things, an “upset allowance” of R200,000 per household; R2,000 per household for trauma in uncovering and relocating graves; R15,500 for the graves of each household, plus a cow and goat; R5,000 for ritual purposes; and R2,750 for the kraal (isiBaya).
The company neglected to recognise that loss encompasses not just the material value of land, but also the non-material aspect (intangible loss).
For affected families, structures like a cattle kraal, the ancestral rondavel (indlokagogo), as well as graves, have a sacred meaning and cannot be bought and sold or simply reconstructed elsewhere without the necessary rituals.
Many families have long rooted their identity in location, and concepts of home, belonging and entitlement are central to people’s understanding of themselves and each other.
What is evident from Tendele’s application is the mine’s assumption that compensation will better people’s lives. Tendele wrote in its application that “the offers made to the relevant homesteads over the last 24 months are in accordance with the principle that ‘one should be equal to or better off than the current lifestyle…’
“It was regrettable that [the relevant households] are holding the mine, its 1,500 employees and many families that have signed the contracts and indeed the entire community to ransom.”
Tendele disregards that compensation is given in recognition of loss and, as such, is not given to improve the lives of mining-affected communities, nor does it restore life to what it was before the changes brought about by mining. It is a mitigation cost and for this reason, communities have the right to negotiate what they deem adequate for the disturbance of their lives.
Land and grave matters
Tendele disregards the sacred connection communities establish with ancestors through the land and graves. This is evident from the inhumane way the mining house relocated hundreds of graves without following the relocations protocol enclosed in the National Heritage Resources Act 25 of 1999.
Section 36 of the act details the protection and relocation guidelines of graves, depending on their status, age, and location, but the provisions were overlooked.
One of the Emalahleni residents, Philip Zwane, recalled that “they used a tractor to dig my father’s grave. As they dug, they could not find the casket because it had decomposed.
“They found the blanket which we buried him with. The whole process was chaotic because as they dug, I was saying, wait, there is a bone… it fell over there.
“I could also see the skull.”
In Somkhele, like many traditional communities, families bury their dead on the homestead. The grave is a site of connection between the living and those who have passed on. Similarly, the cattle kraal is a sacred site of ritual undertakings that connect the living with their ancestors.
For the mining companies, these structures stand in the way of profit-making and their rationale is that they can be reconstructed elsewhere.
Some of the graves which were removed from homesteads are now lost because they were moved to public cemeteries without being given markings.
Explaining the significance of graves, Elias Sikhosana, a member of the MCEJO, said “our graves are here, on this land. I believe that we as a people belong to the dead, to our ancestors.
“My house is standing because of my ancestors. Even if the wind were to blow it away, my ancestors would give me the means to rebuild it. Now, if you disturb or disrespect the ancestors, my whole life is disturbed.”
Understanding the land and graves as sacred – the corporeal medium through which to connect with ancestors – offers an in-depth and holistic understanding of why many activists and communities on mined areas are prepared to shed blood for the land.
The spiritual meaning of the land expands our understanding of the human ties to the land and rejects simply seeing land as a commodity – as a source for generating private wealth. DM