It is with outrage and grief that we share this press release relating the murder of Earth Defender and grandmother Fikile Ntshangase, an outspoken opponent of coal mining in Somkhele, South Africa. We join our South African colleagues and allies (see ends) in denouncing Fikile’s murder. May she rest in power.
THE KILLING OF SOMKHELE ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST, FIKILE NTSHANGASE
“I refused to sign. I cannot sell out my people. And if need be, I will die for my people”.
Tragically, grandmother Fikile Ntshangase’s words became a reality when she was gunned down in her home at Ophondweni, near Mtubatuba, on the evening of 22 October 2020.
As Vice-Chairperson of a sub-committee of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (“MCEJO”), she refused to sign a so-called agreement between the sub-committee and Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd (“Tendele”) that MCEJO would withdraw its Court challenges of Tendele’s expansion of its coal mine at Somkhele. In contrast, the “agreement” provided for no more than vague unenforceable platitudes on Tendele’s part to “work together” with the local community to “resolve issues”.
Mama Ntshangase would have none of this. She warned sub-committee members that they had no power to make decisions on behalf of MJECO and that the “agreement” only benefited Tendele. Not only did she refuse to sign, but she refused to attend any of the secret meetings that other sub-committee members held with Tendele. She vehemently opposed what they were doing and condemned their behaviour. Days before her brutal killing, Mama Ntshangase stated her intention to write an affidavit, revealing sub-committee members who promised her a payment of R350,000 in return for her signature.
The court challenge that placed a price on Mama Ntshangase’s life is MJECO’s pending review application of Tendele’s new mining right in respect of a 222km2 area in Mpukunyoni, KZN. This review is due to be heard by the North Gauteng High Court in March 2021.
Tendele has publicly characterised this review application as a threat to the mine’s continued existence. Tendele is on record stating that, unless it can expand operations into its new mining area, the mine would be forced to close in the next few months.
As part of the dispute, Tendele seeks to relocate 19 families from their ancestral land to make way for the mine expansion. Tendele cannot commence any operations in the new mining right area until these families agree to Tendele’s “compensation” offer and sign relocation agreements.
These families were subjected to months of violence and intimidation. Despite the clear volatility of the situation, Tendele saw fit to accuse these families of “holding the Mine, its … employees and many families who have signed [relocation] agreements and indeed the entire community to ransom”. Tendele carried out its pressure campaign, even while these families were receiving anonymous death-threats and gunmen opened fire on one of the families’ homes.
Then, in May this year, on less than a month’s notice, Tendele were all set to haul these families before the Pietermaritzburg High Court for an urgent order, determining that the compensation being offered by the mine was fair. When these families filed their opposing affidavit, detailing Tendele’s lack of bona fides in negotiations and challenging the fairness of Tendele’s compensation offer, Tendele abruptly removed the matter from the Court roll.
Instead of resolving the relocation dispute, either in Court or in mediation or arbitration proceedings, Tendele appears to have abandoned the legal route and is seeking a political solution. It has embarked upon a campaign to pit the State, the Ingonyama Trust Board, traditional leaders and fellow community members against these families to pressure them into signing relocation agreements with Tendele.
More recently, Tendele expanded this pressure campaign to orchestrate a withdrawal of MJECO’s review application.
Tendele requested the MEC for Transport, Community Safety & Liaison KZN, Minister Ntuli and department officials to set up a “task team”. Among others, Tendele told the Department that: “the two court cases opened by MJECO against the mine remain a threat and needs [sic] to be withdrawn”.
Instead of focussing on the directly affected community’s concerns regarding the proposed mining and relocation, as well as serious threats to their safety, the Task Team sees their role as “deliberat[ing] on the court cases which pose a threat”.
Instead of defending its mining right and demonstrating the fairness of its compensation offer in Court, Tendele is singularly focussed on involving third parties to bring about the withdrawal of MJECO’s review application and getting the 19 families to sign relocation agreements.
For the State and Traditional Authorities actively to assist Tendele in its efforts to bring about MJECO’s withdrawal of its review application is abhorrent to our constitutional order. Without access to Court, local communities’ right to dignity and section 24 environmental rights are illusory.
It is against this backdrop that the pro-mining campaign was stepped up during the past week. On 15 October, two sub-committee members tried to disrupt a MCEJO executive committee meeting with community leaders, which included Mama Ntshangase. These rogue members were accompanied by an aggressive group; two of them, known hitmen. One sub-committee member tried to lock the doors and a prominent leader was assaulted. A criminal case is being opened. This leader, who works in another area, has been warned that his life will be in danger if he is seen in the vicinity.
Billy Mnqondo, a founding member of MCEJO, reports that one of the hitman kept saying “kuzochitheka igazi” (there will be bloodshed). His appeal to the police is: “Make sure that the criminals who murdered our comrade are caught and go to jail. Mam Ntshangase was killed for standing up for what is right. This is wrong and cannot go unpunished. ”
The strategies used by Tendele are sadly typical of many companies operating in impoverished rural communities. Mines dangle incentives to impoverished community members with the inevitable consequences of stirring deep community divisions, which almost always lead to violence and deaths. In rural areas that are difficult to police, it takes someone with the determination and the courage of Mama Ntshangase to promote community solidarity and resistance in the face of these strategies. There are other leaders of this calibre in MCEJO and, if anything, the assassination of Mama Ntshangase has renewed their determination to step up the fight against exploitation by the mine.
What is disgraceful is that the mine is being supported by the KwaZulu-Natal government. In 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 Goodwill Zwelithini about their struggle, they have come under even further government pressure via the office of the Premier and Cogta. This is the self-same government that claims to be a custodian for land reform to redress the land imbalance – while wilfully pushing to displace rural farmers from their family land from which they subsist.
CER (Centre for Environmental Rights) https://cer.org.za/
Earthlife Africa https://earthlife.org.za/
GET (Global Environmental Trust) https://globalenvironmentaltrust.org/
MACUA (Mining Affected Communities United in Action) https://macua.org.za/
MCEJO (Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation)
SAHRDN (Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network) http://www.southernafricadefenders.africa/
WAMUA (Women Against Mining United in Action) https://macua.org.za/