Threats and murder won’t stop South Africa’s environmental activists

Women are at the forefront of anti-mining disputes, fighting powerful corporations and state interests, while trying to protect ancestral lands. #12DaysofResistance

Lindsay Maasdorp Thabi Myeni
3 January 2021, 10.00am
Nonhle Mbuthuma at a community meeting in Xolobeni.
Photo courtesy of Thabi Myeni.

Nonhle Mbuthuma grew up learning how to farm and produce food. Her fondest childhood memories include helping her parents cultivate sweet potatoes and other crops in her village in Xolobeni, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. 

Today, she is an environmental activist and defender of ancestral land – a position that exposes her to constant threats of violence from those she opposes, and means that she must always have a bodyguard when she leaves her home. 

“Just the other day, I filed a police report after receiving threatening text messages. I know they are serious, we have lost so many [activists], but I cannot stop because this is our land,’ says an impassioned Mbuthuma. 

For more than a decade, Mbuthuma and local activists from Xolobeni in the Wild Coast region have been fighting to stop the construction of a titanium dune mine by Australian company Mineral Commodities (MRC). The mine would be one of the largest in South Africa. It would also eat into ancestral grounds. 

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Since the mining project was first proposed in 2007, there has been conflict with the company, particularly in the Amadiba community of Xolobeni. Outspoken activists, often women, have been threatened, harassed and even killed. Mbuthuma co-founded a organisation called Amadiba Community Crisis (ACC). In March 2016, the ACC’s chairperson, Sikhosiphi ‘Bhazooka’ Rhadebe, was gunned down in his home, in front of his son, by two men allegedly posing as police officers. 

“They killed him. He refused to be bullied,” Mbuthuma says. Usually animated, she speaks softly as she recalls the day that she lost her friend and fellow activist. “And now they have killed Mama Ntshangase.” 

Like Rhadebe, Mama Fikile Ntshangase was an environmental activist – as well as a grandmother and a pillar of her community. Like Mbuthuma, she was involved in a battle against a mining company over ancestral lands. On 23 October, South Africans woke up to the tragic news that she had been fatally shot by four gunmen in the home she shared with her 11-year-old grandson. 

Ntshangase was a key member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), which has been challenging Tendele Coal Mining’s plans to expand its existing open-cast coal mine in Somkhele, in KwaZulu-Natal province. Mama Ntshangase loved the community so fervently that she said she was prepared to die for it. 

‘They target women because women care about leaving a sustainable legacy for their children and for the community’

Mbuthuma and Mama Ntshangase had met numerous times, connected by a shared struggle against mining practices they saw as exploitative, and by a shared love for self-sustaining communities. 

“We have gone to Somkhele to meet the activists there and they have come to Xolobeni,” Mbuthuma says. “There was solidarity. But now the women in Somkhele are afraid, and many have gone into hiding. It breaks my heart, the situation there is very bad.” 

In February, 19 bullets were fired into the home of another anti-mining activist, Tholakele Mthetwa – after she refused to sign relocation papers to make way for Tendele’s expansion – according to her lawyer. Mbuthuma believes such violence is gendered. “I think they do target women because they know that women care about the coming generations. Women care about leaving a sustainable legacy for their children and for the community. We have seen some men change their tune after getting individual [financial] promises, but never women.” 

Sustainability vs exploitation, state vs local

Instead of selling the land to mining corporations, Mbuthuma wants the Wild Coast community’s sustainable methods of development to grow. Locals produce their own food, which they sell to neighbouring cities, they fish in the waters off the Wild Coast and they have a booming ecotourism industry that attracts visitors from Latin America, Asia and the Western world. 

During South Africa's severe coronavirus lockdown, Mbuthuma says the communities of Xolobeni didn't take government food packages, but grew their own food. “Even some people that were pro-mining have become anti-mining because, during lockdown, the land took care of them in ways that the government couldn't.” 

In their fight, indigenous environmental activists such as Mbuthuma contend not just with the mining corporations but with South Africa’s political elite too. In September 2016, members of Mbuthuma’s anti-mining group, ACC, were met with tear gas and bullets when the South African police were called to ‘protect’ the minister of mineral resources, Gwede Mantashe, who was meeting with pro-mining groups in the area. 

Despite a lack of consensus from the community, and ongoing legal disputes, it seems the state is fully behind MRC. In a document entitled ‘2020 half-yearly presentation’, the Australian company asserts that “The Company has received approval for its future 2019-2023 Social Labour Plan from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.”

Johan Lorenzen of Richard Spoor, a South African law firm that has represented environmental, human rights and community interests for decades, says his clients are vulnerable, with little to no impetus for the state to protect them. The mining companies seem to have the state on their side but when activists such as Fikile Ntshangase are killed, there is a “lack of resolve” and no efforts to bring violence to an end, he says. 

Lorenzen's firm secured a pro-community high court victory in 2018, which recognises that for mining activities, there should be enthusiastic buy-in from communities. But pursuing judicial intervention can itself be dangerous. 

Human Rights Watch says that Ntshangase was “killed after her refusal to withdraw legal challenges to existing and future mining operations”. Several of South Africa’s environmental organisations agree.

A statement by Earthlife Africa, Lawyers for Human Rights and the Social Justice Coalition, among others, chronicles the dispute between MJECO and Tendele. The statement charges that state and traditional authorities actively assisted the mining company “in its efforts to orchestrate a withdrawal“ of MJECO’s court challenges against mining expansion. 

Ntshangase was murdered a week before one of the court cases brought by MCEJO was scheduled to be heard in the supreme court of appeal.

Colonialism then and now

These conflicts between the needs of indigenous communities in the global south and the capitalist appetites of foreign companies is now centuries old. From Congo to South Africa, such disputes were interwoven with colonialism and imperialist violence. Today, mining and other extractive companies continue to march into destitute communities waving cheap incentives, and collude with and corrupt public officials as they seek to sustain and expand their empires. 

Then and now, the companies’ operations lead to pollution, forced displacement of people and other environmental and human rights abuses. It is activists such as Nonhle Mbuthuma and Fikile Ntshangase who stand between the companies and indigenous communities. They pay a high price for their opposition, from aggressive harassment to murder. 

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