The Wild Coast controversy is a land rights issue!
Although the Wild Coast mining controversy is often depicted primarily as an environmental issue, this portrayal misses core elements of the debate. Yes, there are many grave environmental concerns about the venture. But at its heart the dispute is about land use.
It is about who holds power over the land, and who has the right to determine what happens on that land. It is about what type of land use will be most advantageous to poor communities who live on the land. It is about the right of rural communities to self determination. It is about the rights of land occupants to be part of decision making processes that impact upon their livelihoods. It is also about what political and economic processes would best serve the interests and needs of rural communities for posterity?
The Wild Coast mining controversy revolves around the Department of Minerals and Energy granting a mining licence to the Australian based company, Mineral Commodities Resources (MRC) and its local BEE counterpart Xolco. Many of the subsistence communities who occupy the land to be mined are highly opposed to the mining venture, claiming it will upset their preference for a livelihood based on tourism and agriculture, that the mining venture will bring little benefit to them but will enrich a few elites, and that those who favour the mining do not live in the areas to be mined. Their protestations seem to have gone unheeded by DME. Despite the communal land dwellers having resided on the land for many, many generations, under Eastern Cape statute they hold no legal title to the land.
In the Eastern Cape, communal land is held ‘in trust’ for community by the state. This is a residue of political policy that had its roots in the colonial conquest of Africa, and of the traditional African view of land as being a ‘common’ good. That is, a common communal resource that all should be able to benefit from.
The 1876 annexure of Transkei Territories by British authorities saw the appointment of colonial magistrates as officers over tribal land. Thus began a dual system of land governance, subsequently enforced by a host of regulations, which increasingly eroded the traditional system which had invested tribal chiefs as arbitrators over land, in favour of state appointed officials. While eroding the traditional system of land oversight, land policy simultaneously prevented the statutory ownership of communal land by the rural tenants who lived and worked the land, often for generations. This situation has changed little for rural communal land tenants since post-apartheid 1994.
In many areas of rural Eastern Cape, government, through the Eastern Cape Development Corporation, is driving an aggressive policy of industrial economic development based on the neo-liberal economic development policies of GEAR and ASGISA, based on export specialization, industrialization, foreign investment concessions, privatization, and a reduction in social expenditure to allow for market efficiency and competitiveness in the global export economy.
The Wild Coast mining proposal, as well as the N2 Wild Coast ‘toll road’ proposal, fits snugly with this neo –liberal rationale of industrial driven development. Other mooted developments that would see public- private partnerships using rural communal land for industrial agricultural production such as commercial timber plantations, maize for bio-fuels, and other agricultural export crops. The economic rationale is that by partnering with the wealth and skills of the private sector, an economic boost will be created that has positive ‘trickle down’ effects for the impoverished in the form of employment and other business opportunities.
Yet without legal rights to the land, communal land occupants are denied a key pre-requisite to participation in the neo-liberal development agenda.
Without legal title to the land they work, communal land dwellers cannot use the land as collateral in order to finance improvements to the land. It also means communal land dwellers find themselves at the mercy of state officials and corporate agenda’s when it comes to decisions about land use. Ironically, private corporations, recognized as legal entities in law, are able to access the capital to utilize the land that communal land occupants are denied.
Denied legal claim to land, in order to raise any sort of capital for land development , the system forces communities to collaborate with state or private partnerships for any development proposals, making these communities vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation by the powerful who would use the land and the natural resources that the poor are dependent upon, for private capital gain.
In theory, the law requires that the permission of communal land dwellers must be sought by the state before decisions about land use are taken. Yet without a statutory right to the land, and with a dual system of land oversight in place, who determines what constitutes ‘suitable consultation’ with community? With communal land held ‘in trust’ by the state, but with subsistence communal land tenants dependent upon the land, who decides ultimate authority of veto over land use options?
Community permission for development on communal land is often obtained through the promise of infrastructure development or other benefits to community, or the setting up of so called ‘community trusts’ which supposedly hold a share in the partnership. Yet a spate of recent news reports indicates that communal land dwellers often do not see the reimbursements promised by corporate development agenda’s. In Makopane, Ga-Pila and Ga-Puka in the Limpopo, communal land dwellers protest they have not seen benefits promised by the mining giant Anglo- Platinum. Maandagshoek community members are upset at the destructive practices to their livelihoods of Modikwa Platinum Mine, and Genorah and Nkwe Platinum. On the Wild Coast, Pondoland King Justice Mpondombini Sigcau maintains local community have seen little benefit from a lease agreement to communal land signed between the state and Sun International in the 1980’s for casino rights. (Sunday Tribune, August 9, 2008).
The Wild Coast mining controversy is but another symptom of the victimization of communal land dwellers by misguided development agenda’s which are more fixated on fiscal profits than on human development.
The 1997 United Nations Human Development Report recognized that poverty relief measures went hand in hand with reversing ‘environmental degradation’, securing ‘sustainable livelihoods’, improving employment prospects and creating ‘an enabling environment for small scale agriculture, microenterprises and the informal sector’. For most rural communal land dwellers, the question of security of land tenure is a huge impediment toward achieving these goals.