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One Year On: Mama Ntshangase

Joshua Lubinsky
Image Credit: Groundwork

October 22nd commemorated one year since the fatal evening three heavily armed gunmen walked into the KwaZulu-Natal home of school teacher and environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase, passing her grandson who was playing outside, and shot her 6 times. Ntshangase, 65, succumbed to her wounds instantly. The men who assassinated her are still at large and no arrests have been made by the South African police force in connection to her murder.

At the time of her death, Ntshangase was an instrumental leader of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), who was campaigning against the expansion of the Tendele open-cast coal mine, a subsidiary of South African mining company Petmin, in the town of Somkhele which is close to the oldest nature reserve in Africa, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game park.

The Tendele coal mine was first opened in 2007. Before the mining operations began, the land had been used by locals for grazing and small-scale farming. Somkehele has one of the largest resources of open-pit mineable anthracite reserves in South Africa, and as a result is in high demand by ferrochrome producers. Under the guise of improving the lives and economic prospects of the Somkhele community members, the effects of the open-cast coal mine have been devastating. Respiratory illnesses among residents have become commonplace, as has dust noise, water and air pollution. Villagers also report that the regular blasting from the mine causes cracks in the walls and windows of their homes.

The traditional cultural practice of catching and storing rainwater on rooftop drums for drinking purposes has been abandoned because of the constant black dust contamination from the mine. Drinking water has to now be collected from the Mfolozi River, whose main supply of water has been diverted to the Tendele mine for the purpose of washing coal, which has exacerbated the water scarcity. In 2016, the Mfolozi river ran dry and much of the community were left without access to water for several months. Until August 2014, the mine had been functioning without a water use licence, contravening national mining and water use laws since it began operating 8 years prior. This serves to show Tendele’s complete contempt for the environment and wellbeing of thousands of community members, as well as the cultural significance of the ancestral land. In order to accommodate the mine’s expansion, grave sites were exhumed, with the bodies being displaced to unmarked graves. This outraged family members who will never be able to commemorate their correct ancestor.

Since the land grabbing began, at least 225 families have been displaced and relocated to other areas. Furthermore, it has been reported that Tendele has been intimidating 145 families to sign relocation agreements and part with their ancestral land, using tactics including death threats and allegedly orchestrating drive-by shootings. On an April 2020 evening in the village of Ophondweni, Tholakele Mthethwa, was at home with her daughter and sleeping grandchild when a van pulled up outside and fired multiple gunshots into her home. Miraculously, no one was injured, but Mthetha says they later found four bullets inside the house and 19 cartridges outside. There have been no arrests related to any incidents of violence and intimidation described in court papers filed by MJECO.

Tendele’s chief executive officer Du Preez referred to the median R750,000 payout for families leaving their land as “blackmail,” but this is not taking into account the emotional and physical trauma the mining project has inflicted upon residents. Land is not just a means to generate private wealth, but has a strong cultural significance in the isiZulu culture, especially the spiritual need to remain in close vicinity to deceased family members for guidance.

The mine has divided the community and fuelled tension between families who are prepared to accept financial compensation to be relocated and families who are not, those who are dependent on salaries paid by the mine and those whose livelihoods are conditioned on the wellbeing of their environment. Tendele is placing the responsibility on families refusing to be relocated for the hold up of its expansion. This inevitably stokes resentment and lays the groundwork for violence between people living in underprivileged communities by placing the blame for job losses on certain residents.

Just before Ntshangase was assassinated, she had reportedly been bribed with R350, 000 in order to sign an agreement with Tendele to end pending court cases regarding the opposition of the mine’s expansion as well as its current operations. Seven out of nine members of MCEJO’s Somkhele subcommittee — all but Ntshangase and the chairperson — had already signed the settlement, but Ntshangase refused to be bought or intimidated. This is emblematic of the fact that Fikile was extremely aware of the gross human rights violations Tendele Coal Mine was inflicting upon the people of Somkhele while infringing their right to a safe environment, and remained committed to defending her community’s right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live on their ancestral land in the face of unspeakable injustice.

Fikile confronted forces that were far more powerful than her, including high-ranking ministers and CEOs, and had limitless reserves of courage in taking them to task. A community meeting with ANC minister Gwede Mantashe demonstrated the tremendous tenacity Fikile brought to the fight, where she arrived with water bottles from her house that contained tiny dust particles. Rather than just referring to the crisis affecting the people of Somkhele, she brought evidence from her lived experience to drill it into the consciousness of figures who had the power and influence to make a difference.

Image Credit: Rob Symons

Kirsten Yoeuns is the CEO of climate advocacy nonprofit All Rise and an environmental justice lawyer who worked closely with Ntshangase, representing the Somkhele community against the Tendele Coal Mine. Youens has experienced ongoing intimidation tactics by mining companies and a smear campaign against her personal and professional life. Following Ntshangase’s murder, Youens said that she has had to follow a security protocol where she has even learnt to park her car in the most optimal way should she need to escape from danger in a hurry. Youens was horrified to learn that when mining officials visited Somkhele, they neglected to inform the community of the environmental consequences that their open cast coal mine would have on their land and were not encouraged to share their opinions on the matter. Kirsten notes that South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, but the challenge lies in enforcing them. A large majority of South Africans are completely unaware about the details of the Bill of Rights or the laws concerning environmental protection, and rarely have the authority in defending themselves and enforcing these rights.  This inspired Youens to open a pro bono legal clinic dedicated to educating people on their constitutional rights and the legal mechanisms they can employ when they are unwilling to consent to mining or other extractive projects. The legal clinic has created these resources with workshops on land rights taught in the IsiZulu language and compiled an environmental assessment guide.

Global Witness and ALL RISE organised a webinar on the date of her murder to celebrate Ntshangase’s bravery and draw attention to the plight of land defenders in South Africa, the role the mining industry weighs on communities, and to enforce the right to a healthy environment

Keep the powerful accountable

State and private mining companies exercise immense power and influence over South Africa’s ANC government. Human rights activist Mary de Haas maintains that due diligence needs to be paid towards the money that flows from the mining sector through traditional authorities because they are responsible for the problem. The state capture over South Africa has given rise to an unprecedented kind of corruption. The entanglement between politicians, the private business sector, and the exploitation of state resources in South Africa to fulfil private gains has made for a dangerous combination and had disastrous consequences on the country’s institutions. De Haas asserted that there is no separation of powers between the government and commercial sector because of its heavy influence, which now forms the “basis of conflict” in not only controlling the political and economic spheres, but also in the governing of natural resources.

South Africa’s continued love affair with fossil fuels and unwavering support of mining extractive projects shows its government’s complete apathy towards the climate emergency. It also reveals an outright disregard for the most essential of human rights: water, food security, safety, health and a clean environment. Mining companies like Tendele may masquerade under the smoke screen of economically empowering communities, but in fact, they do little to reduce poverty, and further deepen social inequalities and environmental injustices. In 2017, South Africa went as far as refusing advice and recommendations from UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, to hold companies to account for human rights violations that they commit. Fikle’s death could have been prevented by adequate protection mechanisms in place, making South Africa  guilty of being complicit in these violations. “Disturbingly, they’ve been silent on Fikile Ntshangase’s murder and the daily dangers faced by other defenders,” says All Rise.

Tensions around the mine persist today, at present there is a landmark case arguing that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the mine’s expansion was invalid and consultation and information provided to the community was insufficient. The case is arguing that Tendele has been operating illegally with no valid environmental authorisation, no municipal planning, no waste disposal license, and no excavation permits to relocate ancestral graves. The blame lies on Tendele for failing to receive consent from informed community members and for continuing its operations despite being in flagrant disregard of the law and environmental requirements.  If the case is won, it will set a revolutionary precedent for local communities standing up against powerful governments and relentless mining companies. After being postponed five times, the hearing finally opened on Nov. 10 and ran for three days, with the earliest verdict expected in February 2022. Youens is confident that they have been heard and justice will prevail for the people who have been living in a water and air polluted hell for 14 years. They have been torn apart by violent conflicts, endured the desecration of their ancestral land, and suffered the murder of one of their beloved community members. Irrespective of the outcome, the community of Somkhele won’t back down in the fight against the expansion of Tendele.

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