As in some other rural areas there is apparently no enforcement of Lockdown Regulations in Ophondweni, Mtubatuba.  On the night of 17 April the home of Sabelo Dladla was broken into and he was injured and robbed by the assailants.  This incident is perceived as sending a warning message to Dladla, who is the Second Applicant, representing the 4000 strong Mfolosi community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) , in a High Court case in which Respondents include government ministers and municipalities, the Ingonyama Trust Board, and Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd.  The First Applicant in this case (82865/18 North Gauteng High court) is the Global Environmental Trust.  The outcome of this matter,  which is currently set down for Appeal in the  Bloemfontein  Supreme Court of Appeal, has crucial implications for both environmental rights, and the rights of people living on rural land targeted by mining companies.  Fortunately Dladla and his family have gone into hiding as shots were fired outside his house on 29 April.

‘The day before the incident at Dladla’s home local police stations had been alerted by email to tensions, and had been asked to patrol the area, following threats to people who had not agreed to move from their homes for the coal mine to expand its operations.  Whenever mining is planned in rural areas expectations are created that it will bring jobs, which fuel tensions in communities with high unemployment rates.  In the current case, people refusing to sign papers agreeing to move are accused of depriving people of employment, or of leading to retrenchments if the mine is unable to expand.  Those who have not signed these papers are long-standing residents, whose rights to remain on the land are protected in law, and who claim that the compensation offered is not nearly enough to make up for the loss of land which allows them to subsist through farming or keeping livestock. Another important factor is the existence of family graves on the land.   

Among those allegedly making the threats are a former municipal councillor and members of the local Traditional Authority, through which documents had been distributed by the mine for people to sign. Among those receiving threats are members of the M, D, and R families.  From affidavits deposed to, it seems that some of those making the threats have been driving freely in the area in breach of lockdown regulations. On the night of 24 April a vehicle without headlights was able to move around the homes of M and D, with its occupants firing many shots at homes whose residents include elderly people and children.  From descriptions by family members, and the impact marks on the walls, a rifle or rifles were used.

Despite the emailed request for patrols on 16 April, which had been followed up with a further email two days later giving specific directions about the part of Ophondweni under threat, there had been no patrols prior to the attack of 24 April. Nor were any patrols dispatched after a further email sent on 25 April, which had been copied to the Deputy Provincial Commissioner.  Following a telephone call to the local KwaMsane station, a patrol was eventually dispatched that night and the following night.  Since then, despite further follow ups with provincial management, only one patrol has been seen in the area.

The families who have been attacked and/or threatened with attack, are understandably terrified, and threats continue. On 6 May Mr D received an anonymous message on his phone  saying that although ‘they’ did not want to kill anyone ‘they’ wanted D and others to be relocated as ‘they’ had been retrenched from the mine and ‘they’ could return to work if people moved; if they refused to relocate the breadwinners would be shot as it was known where they worked.   Mr D has opened a case of intimidation..

Despite it being known that the traditional authorities themselves have made veiled threats against people who have refused to sign documents from the mine, and despite the presence of well-armed people moving around the area with impunity during lockdown, there are still no regular patrols in the affected area, and no arrests have been made.  Understandably, traumatised residents have no confidence in the local police.  Years of experience shows that local police are generally loth to take action against traditional leadership.  Through the provincial detective head, a request has been made for the Dladla, M and D dockets to be transferred to a task team from another SAPS Cluster. 

While police and army are deployed to stop people brewing beer or drinking in their own homes, and to maliciously arrest people for minor transgressions, the SAPS, which is constitutionally bound to prevent crime, as well as bring perpetrators to justice, is failing completely in its duty to protect vulnerable communities from being attacked and killed while practising ‘maximum enforcement’ against people on the urban streets.

However, government culpability for what is happening in Ophondweni goes beyond the conduct of the police, and extends to environmental and minerals ministries.  Residents in the Mtubatuba areas in which coal mining is taking place attribute high levels of serious respiratory illnesses, and deaths, to the pollution of coal dust, and even send their children out of the area to school elsewhere because of fears for their health. Why, given Global Warming, and the phasing out of coal as an energy source, should the government allow coal mines to expand?  A rush of mining-related legislation by the Department of Minerals and Petroleum Resources provide no real protection for the land rights of rural communities. The passing by parliament of the Khoisan and Traditional Leaders Act, too, shows contempt for the rights of rural communities since it provides traditional leaders, who fit snugly into the pockets of mining companies, with even more powers than they previously had, to enter into business agreements.  If passed, the second of the Bantustan bills – the Traditional courts Bill – will effectively give them even greater social control over their hapless subjects.  Do all these legislative actions by a government that claims to be democratic suggest that it has any real  concern for the basic rights of all South Africans to health, a clean environment, food security and safety – or any commitment to preserving these rights?

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