‘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 sub-committees of the Mfolosi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) for Ophondweni and neighbouring areas, and a powerful voice in opposing the expansion of mining by the Tendele Coal mine, 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. This assassination followed on 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 these past few months several MCEJO members have been offered R300 000 by the mine to withdraw the cases. Some have been seduced by this offer and their membership of MCEJO as been suspended. All those refusing to sign their properties over to Tendele Mining have received death threats, some linked to local traditional leadership, one survived a drive-by shooting in her home, and one applicant was attacked in his home. The threat was ever-present, with suspicious vehicles seen in the area at night, and although the local police station deployed patrols the nature of the deep rural area 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 is described as being a very strong, powerful voice against capitulating to the demands of the mining company. One of her close associates in this struggle describes her as a leader in the Somkhele/Mpukunyoni committee, working tirelessly for the community, 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 these companies operate, which involve dangling incentives to impoverished residents with the inevitable consequences of stirring deep community divisions, invariably leading to violence and deaths. In rural areas which are difficult to police it takes great determination and courage to counter these strategies, and Mrs Ntshangase exemplified the type of leadership which promotes community solidarity and resistance. There are other leaders of this calibre in the NCEJO 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 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 Zwelithini) about their struggle they have come under even further government pressure via the office of the Premier and CoGTA (Co-operative Governance and Traditional Leadership department). This is the self-same government that claims that 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.