Apartheid’s Surplus People were those millions of black South Africans who were forcibly relocated in the implementation of spatial racial segregation.  These removals caused untold suffering to families and communities. They increased poverty, and tore the social fabric apart, leaving a lasting impact on the nature of our society. However, democracy has its own surplus people – those who have been relocated since 1994, or are facing removal for mining-related activities, including in KZN. Their position is now under greater threat than ever from bills about traditional leadership and expropriation

The heart-breaking suffering caused by forced relocations was graphically described at a meeting in Durban in December 1981 attended by representatives of communities from all over KZN who were facing relocation. Among those present were representatives of Reserves 4 and 6, from which people were to be relocated, or had already been removed, to Ntambanana, inland from Empangeni. These Reserves were ‘badly situated’ for the expansion of Richards Bay and had been transferred back from the KwaZulu bantustan to South Africa. With one voice the speakers – including a widow from Mandlazini with a large family who had, with others, already been moved, spoke powerfully of their fruitless resistance to removal from their fertile coastal areas. There they had ploughed their fields, kept cattle, and produced a surplus of fruit to sell. They had always had enough water, even in times of drought.  In contrast, water was scarce in Ntambanana, and the small salt-laden river dried up in times of drought.  The soil was so poor that even white farmers with access to the Land Bank could not make a living. What were they to eat if they could not even grow sweet potatoes?

Twenty-five years into constitutional democracy, there are certain parallels between the events in Reserves 4 and 6, and the plight of people living in eMpembeni, south of Richards Bay. The main difference is that it is not the financial interests of apartheid ideology, but those of big mining business and their ‘black empowerment’ partners, which pose the threat.  Some residents have already been ‘persuaded’ to move, with minimal compensation, for titanium mining. Those living in the Gubetuko area have been told they will have to move for ‘oil’.   However, no one, including CoGTA, is telling them what these oil-related activities are. According to locals who have tried to find out, all that is known is that a company whose director is well known to soccer fans is involved, that there was talk of a ‘labour plan’, and that the area has been surveyed (including aerially).  Its precise connection with oil (and gas) is unknown, but it is likely that the area is earmarked for storage and/or refinery purposes and, probably, the expansion of the Richards Bay port. Whether these plans are connected to a reported 2015 deal about an Oil and Gas tank farm south of Mthunzini, of which there is yet no sign, is not known.

Like the area from which people were removed to Ntambanana, Gubetuko is fertile – people can subsist from the livestock they keep and the food they grow, and have surplus to sell. They are determined not to move.  They are painfully aware that neighbours who have moved are crying for their loss of land and livelihoods. They also know about the serious environmental degradation mining brings.  It may appear that they have the Constitution on their side but, as has repeatedly been shown, putting it into practice is a different matter altogether. Powerful financial interests and politicians know that most disempowered rural people lack the resources to engage the type of legal support needed to fight Big Mining.  Amidst the silence over what is planned, there have, for months, been targeted attacks by faceless hit men and many of the victims are young men, some of whom had been in hiding.  Thanks to national SAPS intervention those who are widely alleged to have sent the hitmen (who are allegedly beneficiaries of huge mining-related tenders) are in prison, and the area has been quiet since their arrests. They are known to have powerful connections, and there are fears that they may be released on bail. Making matters worse, provincial SAPS management has failed to re-deploy the additional patrols which provided a security blanket for residents and local police investigators. There is no better way of intimidating people into compliance than a campaign of terror unleased against them.

In KZN the problems start when the Ingonyama Trust Board gives leases to business concerns to operate on land it controls, so it must have given a lease for Gubetuko land.  It would also have given leases to the coal mining companies wreaking havoc in many areas, including Somkele (Mtubatuba), where people have had to move and received minimal compensation for large pieces of land they previously farmed, and where those who remain near the mines suffer serious pollution effects, including high levels of life-threatening respiratory illnesses.  Since the formation of the Board circa 2000 questions have arisen about conflict of interest issues. For example, is one of the listed directors of Zululand Anthracite Colliery the same Jerome Ngwenya who chairs the current board?

However, the Board operates in tandem with the local traditional leadership and council, which must give permission for the awarding of the lease. That is easy to arrange for all that is required is to dispense patronage to enough residents for them to buy into the ‘development’ and ‘jobs’ rhetoric. If that fails, people can be bused in to sign.  Now this so-called democratic government has reinforced feudalism in the Khoisan and Traditional Leaders bill recently rammed through parliament, giving traditional structures more power to cut deals with mining companies.

Amidst all its rhetoric about land restitution, the government is facilitating the stripping of land rights and with them the right to decent food and shelter.  Is it aware of the large numbers of children who are nutritionally, and people who go to bed hungry? The very politicians who enthuse over the supposed financial benefits of mining stood by while countless billions were looted from the country’s coffers. Our number one priority should be food security. Nor do these politicians-cum-business people evince any real concern for the environment.  Do they not understand the devastation they are wreaking on the planet by their fossil fuel greed – and that their descendants will be among those who reap the whirlwind?  The need to stop the plunder, and support the people of eMpembeni, Somkele and all affected and threatened areas, has never been greater.