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South Africa mining takes a violent turn

By Joan Martinez-Alier.

The Xolobeni saga, which dates back at least ten years, involves the proposed open-cast mining of titanium ores from a 22km stretch of ochre-coloured sand dunes south of Port Edward in the Amadiba traditional area by Australian company Mineral Commodities (MRC). Should it go ahead, the mining would displace more than 200 households. The future of this open cast operation to mine ilmenite, rutile and zircon on pristine sand dunes, hangs in the balance. In March 2016, opponents of the plan to mine titanium in the Xolobeni area in the Eastern Cape feared for their lives after the chairman of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe, was assassinated on 22 March 2016. Rhadebe was shot eight times outside his house in Lurholweni Township at Mbizana. The committee represents community members who are anti-mining. They argue that tourism should be the mainstay of the economy in this “Wild Coast”, which holds remarkable biodiversity.

Committee member Nonhle Mbuthuma told GroundUp that just before his death Rhadebe had phoned her to check on her safety and that of another committee member, Mzamo Dlamini. He had spoken of a hit list on which his was the first name and hers and Dlamini’s the second and third. An hour and a half later, he was dead. Two men had knocked at the door saying they were police officers. “After one year of threats and attacks, we have been waiting for something like this to happen,” said Mbuthuma in a statement issued after the assassination. The crisis committee had said the Amadiba coastal community “will not be intimidated into submission. Imining ayiphumeleli! (mining will not succeed)”. During a call to discuss violence in Xolobeni village in January, Mbuthuma told that strong opponents of mining were being targeted. For this reason she and Dlamini had decided to move to Port Edward and commute to Xolobeni daily for their work in the community. Rhadebe also had addressed the gathering, saying: “If all of you are intimidated you can leave, but as for myself I am not going to leave my home”.

The Xolobeni community opposes plans by mining company TEM, a subsidiary of Australian mining company MRC, to mine titanium on their land. Community members say the mine will mean the removal of people from the land and the destruction of their livelihoods. The Amadiba Crisis Committee accuses MRC and its local partners and allies of using violence to intimidate the community into accepting the mine. The committee says police in the area are on the side of the mining company. Mbuthuma described in a statement months of violence against opponents to the mine, including armed attacks against community members in May and December last year, threats and attacks against the headwoman, Cynthia Baleni, who opposes the titanium mine, and raids by police against opponents to the mine. Several people have been injured, some seriously.  Members of the Pondo nation are deeply divided over the proposed mine, which has manifested in intimidation and violence as tensions intensify.

According to some interpretations, apart from the search for ilmenite or titanium in the coastal areas of South Africa and elsewhere, there are facts which are related to South African current politics. The murder of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, a leading opponent of titanium mining in Xolobeni, marks a crisis that has been building for over two decades around land and chiefs in rural black South Africa. The context of his murder is a scramble for self-enrichment by chiefs which is not confined to the Wild Coast. A raft of laws since the advent of democracy has progressively given power over land and people to traditional leaders. A delay of almost 10 years after the first democratic elections of 1994 in defining the roles and powers of chiefs created a vacuum into which some ambitious chiefs drove their agenda of being local despotic sovereigns, like many were in Bantustans. The laws that have been passed, starting with the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003, have failed to create sufficient mechanisms for rural citizens to hold their chiefs to account. With the discovery of minerals on land that was considered of little value under apartheid and to which black South Africans were consigned by laws such as the Group Areas Act, things have gone from bad to worse for ordinary citizens.

Many chiefs are scrambling to push themselves to the forefront of empowerment companies for self-enrichment from mining deals. This is the case in Xolobeni. Anti-mining activists claim that two of the most prominent local pro-mining advocates are Zamile Qunya and Amadiba chief Lunga Baleni. The first is the founder of the Xolobeni Empowerment Company (Xolco), the empowerment partner of Australia-owned Mineral Commodities (MRC), which is pushing for mining on the Wild Coast. Baleni became one of Xolco’s directors in 2014. Qunya is a director of MRC’s other South African operator, Tormin, the controversy-plagued dune mining operation on the West Coast. The countryside is sliding into ever more violent confrontations between people and their supposed customary leaders.

The government just keeps making things worse. This has become obvious with regard to landholding and decision-making about communal land in recent years. Land restitution for people who had been dispossessed of their land under apartheid began with the opening of the land claims process in 1994. The window to submit claims closed in 1998. The Communal Property Association Act (CPA) of 1996 created a mechanism for people who successfully submitted restitution claims to hold their restitution land communally and make decisions collectively. Chiefs expressed vociferous objections to this arrangement and some simply allocated restitution land belonging to CPAs to others, claiming that the land was historically theirs. The consequences for some CPAs have been devastating.

What is alarming is that these traditional councils are undemocratic institutions in which women generally have insignificant representation. Chiefs focused on advancing their own interests in mining deals and so occupied the vacuum in ways that would shape rural politics to their advantage. They clamoured for the state to recognise their vision of rural governance as a return to African ways that had been destroyed by colonialism and apartheid. The state has capitulated. Ruling elites in rural areas have captured the state in their own ways, often working in tandem with capital and representatives of political parties at local, regional and national levels. The consequences are devastating for ordinary citizens: crumbling houses due to mining on their doorsteps to which they have never consented, revenue that should be going into community development funding lavish lifestyles for a few, and much more. Those who call for accountability pay the price. Bazooka Rhadebe is dead. Things must be done differently now before rural South Africa goes up in flames. Bazooka’s death must not be in vain.

More info

Background: Kamleshan Pillay,2015, The Xolobeni Heavy Minerals Sans Project on the Wild Coast, South Africa, EJOLT Factsheet n. 27).

The Xolobeni case in the Atlas of Environmental Justice

Rural South Africa is on a Precipice. Countryside sliding into ever more violent confrontations. By Mbongiseni Buthelezi and Sithandiwe Yeni, 21 April 2016

One comment

  1. On Judith said:

    Assassinating the leaders will not intimidate this brave community who are fighting for justice. Keep up the publicity – it is your protection. I salute your courage and support your struggle.