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Wild Coast Mining conflict back on the boil

JOHN CLARKE 13 APR 2015 12:53 (SOUTH AFRICA)

Source: Daily Maverick

While the bronze image of Cecil John Rhodes was being removed last week from the steps of the University of Cape Town, his ghost still hovered ominously over the mineral rich dunes of the Pondoland Wild Coast. For the third time since 2007, the Perth-based mining entrepreneur Mark Caruso is trying to secure mining rights for his venture capital company MRC Ltd, via his South African subsidiary Transworld Energy Mineral Resources (Pty) Ltd. They face formidable opposition organised by the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which came into existence eight years ago when TEM/MRC made their first attempt to obtain mining rights in 2007. This was ultimately defeated after a long and arduous six-year struggle.

MRC/TEM’s second attempt was abandoned after still more resolute opposition from local residents, but the same company announced on 6 March that a fresh application had been lodged with the Department of Mineral Resources.

john-wildcoast-subbedm photoThe Umgungungdlovu Komkhulu (tribal court room) that overlooks the mineral-rich coastal dunes of the Wild Coast was too small to accommodate the large crowd of some 400 angry and offended rural residents who turned up for yet another raucous meeting about mining.

On this occasion, the meeting was scheduled for later than usual (1pm) and the Senior Chief, Lunga Baleni, came along to introduce Mr Badenhorst and his team. Ordinarily the facilitating presence of the chief would have helped to make the requisite cross-cultural connections, but given that Lunga Baleni was widely perceived to have capitulated to being a puppet of MRC/TEM (testified by his arrival in a gleaming new 4x4), his formal power failed to translate into influential authority. He was jeered when he opened the meeting because according to Mpondo customary law, the chief is not supposed to take sides, but facilitate participation and dialogue to build peace. The de facto authority now clearly resided in the leaders of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which included the well-respected Induna’s(headmen) for the Umgungundlovu tribal substructure.

Besides the antipathy toward the Chief, the mood of the meeting was affected by two other serious process issues.

Firstly, the absence of one of one of their most revered indunas, Bhalasheleni Mtanyelwa Mthwa, who had mysteriously fallen ill overnight. His trademark cheerfulness, wit and wisdom had become a fixture at the Komkhulu for years, nerving the youth against panic and seduction, guiding the elders with insight and wisdom, and uniting everybody with inspirational insights. His homestead is less than a kilometre away from the Komkhulu toward the coast. The red mineral rich dunes start at the bottom of his vegetable garden. From the inception of the mining conflict he has been a stalwart of the struggle. His proximity to the dunes, together with his absolute determination that he will not move, has made him one of the biggest obstacles to the ambitions of the mining company.

Secondly the meeting started only at 13.00. Amadiba Crisis Committee spokesperson Mzamo Dlamini said that at a Traditional Authority meeting two weeks prior, two hundred upset residents who had read the posters advertising the schedule of meetings insisted that their Head Woman, Cynthia Baleni, demand that the meeting should start 10.00 a.m., as is custom. “The reason is the 15km and more walking distances for some participants. This was rejected by Badenhorst, claiming that Chief Lunga Baleni had agreed to the schedule. How can a consultant come and claim he is neutral and start out by insulting the Umgungundlovu Traditional Authority by not starting the process at the Umgungundlovu Komkhulu?”

 

The perceived manipulation of the process meant that the meeting was over before it had really begun. Badenhorst was not able to get past probing questions from members of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, who wanted to know what motives and interests lay behind the new application. Or, to be more precise, the ACC members knew exactly what motives and interests lay behind the application, but wanted it all out in the open. ACC’s questions were actually directed at educating Mr Badenhorst and his team that the Amadiba’s local history mattered much more than mere compliance with a legislative process.

In terms of Mpondo customary law, any decision that proposes to alter any existing rights with respect to communally owned land must commence from the grassroots up. Rhodes’ annexation of Pondoland to the Cape Colony in 1894 never respected that.

First up was Sinegugu Zukulu, to show the consultants that they were dealing with an empowered community whose patience and tolerance toward manipulative mining agents had long expired. Zukulu’s leading role had been crucial to shaping the history of the Amadiba’s hitherto successful, but costly, battle against the foreign mining forces. With a Masters degree in Environmental Management and many years of experience as an educator, Zukulu showed that while formal power can be conferred from above, influential authority had to be earned from below. Sustained by his deep Christian faith, he had earned his authority by sacrificial personal experience, enduring the bitter pain of estranged friendships and ruptured kinship networks, because of the ruthless methods used by the mining company to ‘divide and rule’.

He asked them to make it clear to the people that whereas the previous mining rights application had been narrowed down to only one third of the mining tenement, MRC/TEM were now wanting to secure the rights to mine the entire 22km stretch of coastal dunes all the way from the Mzamba to Mtentu river gorges. “You must tell the people that many more homesteads will be directly affected. The Kwanyana block alone had 38 homesteads. The entire area has more than 200 homesteads that will be directly affected.”

In short, people are living there. And they don’t want to move away and leave their ancestral lands to be plundered.

Next, Nonhle Mbuthuma, who has since 2006 played a leading role in the ACC in organising and empowering the community to assert their constitutional rights, asked Badenhorst to explain exactly who the applicants “Transworld Energy Mineral Resources” were, since there was no one present from the company.

She clearly knew a lot more than did Mr Badenhorst about their history. Accompanied by raucous cheers from the fired-up residents, she explained that the community had already made it quite clear, firstly in 2007 to the head of TEM John Barnes, and then again to his successor Andrew Lashbrooke in 2013, as well as to the Department of Mineral Resources throughout that the overwhelming majority of the residents living in the 200-plus homesteads (and many others besides), had already decided that they did not want their ancestral lands to be mined.

Yes, leave us alone,” someone shouted from the crowd. “We are not interested in the mining. Why do you keep coming back?”

Badenhorst explained that he had been commissioned to restart the EIA process “because the law had since been changed" and he had been sent to offer the community another opportunity to again express their concerns and issues, so as to educate the Department of Mineral Resources afresh as to why they should or shouldn't award mining rights.

"But our minds have not changed," someone shouted from the crowd, just before another angry man, brandishing a knobkierie, made his way out of the crowd toward Badenhorst and his team, intent on hammering the message home.

He was restrained by other residents, and shepherded away to cool off, but since it had become clear that the normal tolerance and goodwill of the community had been long overdrawn, and that further effort to engage with them was pointless, Chief Baleni and Mr Badenhorst decided discretion was the better part of valour, and started packing up.

With the crowd singing "imining ayiphumeleli" (mining will not succeed), they hastened the motorcade along its way. It was guava season and a few ripe guavas and maize cobs were thrown, aimed at Chief Lunga Baleni’s vehicle, as he hastily negotiated a three-point turn to follow Badenhorst and the rest of the TEM/MRC team out of the area.

Badenhorst declined to be interviewed afterwards, saying only that “I have done my job, according to what the law requires.”

Sinegugu Zukulu then rushed to fetch Bhalasheleni from his homestead and turned his bakkie into a makeshift ambulance to drive him and his anxious wife to get urgent medical attention.

While driving back, Zukulu explained to me that the level of militancy displayed by the people of Mgungundlovu was something he had not seen before. “It clearly demonstrated that they have had enough of this. I do not approve of hut burnings, but if the government studied the history of amaMpondo, they would know that it was here that the Mpondo revolt of 1960 started. You don’t take land from amaMpondo.”

But it is not only the law that has changed. When MRC/TEM/Xolco commenced their first mining rights application process in 2006 a tightly-controlled media cordon was enforced by the ring leaders of the pro-mining faction. Before the Amadiba Crisis Committee had been formed to counter the co-option and subversion strategy, Mbuthuma, Zukulu and other brave residents feared for their lives if they were seen speaking to journalists. In the first major expose by SABC’s 50/50 filmed in October 2006, they had to sneak across the Mzamba gorge to be interviewed at the Wild Coast sun resort to avoid attracting the attention of thugs in the employ of the mining company.

The courage that they showed ensured that the media cordon collapsed and the Wild Coast Xolobeni mining saga became the top environmental story of 2007/2008. As the Amadiba ascended up the Snakes and Ladders board to an unprecedented victory, their success was in no small measure due to journalists who provided ‘ladders’ and helped the local residents spot the more poisonous ‘snakes’. They forced the Minister of Mineral Resources to revoke the mining rights without having to go to court. That has never happened before.

Will it happen again?

The media cordon has long gone, and there is no objective reason that it cannot. In June this year, the premiere of a feature-length documentary The Shore Break, which tells the disturbing story of the Amadiba’s bitter struggle, is due for release in South Africa in the next few months. (It has already won an award for Best Feature Length Documentary at the International Environmental Documentary Film Festival in Paris in February.) DM

Postscript: Balashaleni Mtanyelwa Mthwa died at 3pm on Saturday afternoon. Further details and funeral arrangements will be announced in due course.

John Clarke is a social worker and author of the book The Promise of Justice: King Mpondombini Sigcau’s struggle to save the Mpondo from unjust developments. See www.thepromiseofjustice.co.za.

Photo: Local Amadiba residents assemble at Komkhulu. Picture by Mzamo Dlamini.

 

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