South Africa

Op-Ed: Mantashe appeal: We’ll fight you all the way, vows Xolobeni community

The government says the high court decision that the state must seek prior and informed consent from affected communities before granting mining licences will negatively affect the future of mining in the country, especially if the right to issue licences shifts from the state to communities.

Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe’s decision to appeal against the Xolobeni ruling is disappointing. The 22 November ruling by the Pretoria High Court declared the granting of mining rights in the area unlawful unless there was proper consultation with the affected communities.

But what is even more disturbing is that one of the reasons given by the state in its notice to appeal is that the provision of protection to the Amadiba community violates the constitutional right to equality in that it gives customary communities rights that private farmers do not have.

As Amnesty International, we have been calling on the government to engage in meaningful consultation with the affected communities — who have been fighting this battle for more than 15 years — and listen to their concerns.

Nonhle Mbuthuma is leading the fight. She has continually been threatened, intimidated and even survived an assassination attempt. Mbuthuma hails from Xolobeni, one of five villages in Pondoland located on the eastern coastline popularly known as the Wild Coast. The villages all fall under the customary law jurisdiction of the Umgungundlovu community which forms part of the Amadiba Traditional Community.

Mineral Commodities Ltd (MRC), an Australian mining company, has been seeking to mine almost 2,900ha of communal coastal land at Xolobeni Village. The mining would be carried out through the company’s local South African subsidiary, Transworld Energy and Minerals Resources.

In 2007, Nonhle founded the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a group which brings together individuals from the five villages in Pondoland to campaign against the mining project. In March 2016 the chairperson of the ACC, Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe was shot dead by unknown gunmen. No one has been arrested for his murder.

The shooting came shortly after Rhadebe learnt from an anonymous source that his name, along with Mbuthuma’s and that of Mzamo Dlamini, also from ACC, were on a “hit list”. In May 2018 Amnesty was forced to assist in providing protection for Mbuthuma and her family after being informed that unknown persons in an unmarked car were making inquiries into her whereabouts in Xolobeni, where she was scheduled to hold a meeting with community members. Mbuthuma was warned and decided not to attend the meeting, fearing for her safety.

On 10 December, International Human Rights Day, thousands of Amnesty International supporters and members from around the world wrote letters to President Cyril Ramaphosa as part of the Write for Rights Campaign. The letters called on the South African government to protect Mbuthuma and investigate the harassment and intimidation aimed at her. They also wrote letters of support to Mbuthuma.

The land in question is held in trust by the government on behalf of local residents under communal land tenure. The community is claiming that, in accordance with the Interim Protection of Informal Rights to Land Act of 1996, the state must seek prior and informed consent from the affected communities before granting mining licences. This position was upheld by a high court ruling on 22 November, which said mining companies had to comply with the act before they could be granted mining rights under the mining law.

The government is appealing against the judgment, saying it will negatively affect the future of mining in the country, especially if the right to issue licences shifts from the state to the communities.

But while the government’s concern is centred on economics and business interests, for Mbuthuma and the members of her community it is more personal. They are trying to save their homes and their land. It is estimated that about 5,000 people may be forcibly evicted from the area if the mining licence is granted. This is in addition to the destruction of the environment and potential health risks associated with opencast mining.

The government has criticised the community, saying it is blocking development. But Mbuthuma says they are not against development. They just don’t want to see their land and their homes destroyed by mining. They are adamant mining is not the only option. The community are open to eco-tourism and agriculture as a viable option.

The land was my grandmother’s, who inherited it from her grandparents. What am I going to leave for my children? Mining is not an option,” she told Amnesty.

It is important for the government to listen to the community and to engage in meaningful consultation, with the aim of coming up with a viable solution that not only provides development but safeguards the land and the environment.

It is really sad that after centuries of fighting slavery, colonisation and apartheid, people are still being forced out of their homes and off their land to make way for business and profits from which they usually derive little or no benefits.

But Mbuthuma and her community are not giving up. In a statement released in response to the government’s decision to appeal, the Amadiba Crisis Committee said:

Gwede Mantashe doesn’t respect our right and that of other customary communities to make decisions about our own land. You can appeal, Minister Mantashe. We will fight you all the way to the Constitutional Court.” DM

Shenilla Mohamed is executive director of Amnesty International South Africa.