South Africa: Taking on a Mining Giant and Winning

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A small South African community has won a decade-long fight to prevent the construction of a titanium mine on its ancestral land, writes the BBC’s Pumza Fihlani after visiting the area.

The lush fields and hillsides are dotted with huts. Clear rivers run into the sea along the breath-taking Indian Ocean coastline and just one road gives access to this rustic scene.

But Xolobeni, the idyllic home to South Africa’s Amadiba community, sits on top of huge reserves of titanium ore, a lightweight and strong valuable metal used in everything from computers to aeroplanes.

For more than 10 years the community have been waging a battle, which at times has proved deadly, to preserve their way of life against mining interests.

It is a battle that they have, for the time being, won after a court ruling last month went their way.

Murder and suspicion

The tensions over mining have made this part of the country uncharacteristically hostile to outsiders, and I was advised to have a local escort for my visit.

I travelled to Xolobeni, one of the villages that had been earmarked to make way for the mine, to speak to a woman on the frontline of this fight, Nohle Mbuthuma.

She is a difficult person to get hold of and finds it hard to trust people as she believes that some of her colleagues have been killed for their activism.

Ms Mbuthuma is the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), which was formed in 2007 to coordinate fight against the proposed mine.

She stepped into the role when fellow activist and long-time friend Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, affectionately known “Bazooka”, was killed two years ago after being shot eight-times in his home by men posing as police officers.

Villagers believe he was killed because of his fierce opposition to the mining plans, but the police are still investigating the case and no arrests have been made.

At least 10 other people, who had opposed the mining plan, have died in the last few years under mysterious circumstances, including poisoning, according to local media.

There are suspicions that some locals who stand to benefit from mining are behind the violence but this has never been proved.

Ms Mbuthuma has had a few brushes with death herself and avoids staying in in one place for too long.

“I’m not afraid about my life. I’m not even protecting myself, I’m protecting the struggle… that’s why I’m even changing places,” she told me, defiance burning behind her tired eyes.

‘Destroying the environment’

Transworld Energy Mineral (TEM), a subsidiary of Australian mining company MRC, has been trying since 2007, to obtain a license to mine the region’s deposits from the government’s Department of Mineral Resources.

The project, if it went ahead, would affect swathes of farmland on a coastal strip of about 22km (13.7 miles), and 600 people would have to move, according to an estimate by the community’s lawyers.

They have said an acceptable relocation plan has not been proposed.

The ACC, supported by the local tribal council, argued in court that mining would bring disastrous consequences to the region, including destroying the environment and creating a community that could not look after itself.

The Amadiba community was one of more than 100 applicants in a court case against South Africa’s mining authority, saying that they must give their consent before a mining license is granted.

Last month, in a room filled with lawyers and a handful of villagers who had travelled overnight in a minibus to learn their fate, the High Court in the capital, Pretoria, heard the community’s pleas and agreed with them.

‘South Africa’s wealth built on mining’

In her ruling, Judge Annali Basson said their fears about the consequences of mining were well founded.

Her judgement highlighted how communities in mining areas often suffered from airborne diseases, lost their grazing land and were often forced to move. The environment was also damaged, she noted.

TEM, which wants the license, has made no comment, but the government still supports the mining project and Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe insists it would be good for development and could help boost the country’s struggling economy.

South Africa’s wealth was built on mining and Mr Mantashe said the judgment could pose a threat to the industry as a whole as he thinks it could set a precedent.

“We either look into sustaining and preserving mining, or take a clear decision to ban mining in this country and allow those minerals to lie on the ground,” Mr Mantashe said after the judgement.

He added that his department will study the ruling and will appeal against “aspects” of it.

But for now the High Court ruling spells a victory for the people of Xolobeni.

To answer the call for economic development, the Amadiba community want the authorities to focus on building up eco-tourism and conservation. In other words something that would not, in their view, damage their land.

In her ruling, Justice Basson cited a case in South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, which described the link between the land and African communities and called it “their most treasured possession”.

This goes some way to explaining why the Amadiba would not back down, even when some people were being killed.

‘Fight for the future’

On the eve of the court judgement, 200 people gathered in a packed hall to discuss the next step in their fight to keep the miners off their land.

Ms Mbuthuma was present. She is a small but fiery woman who commands the respect of her people.

This was one of the few times they had seen her since she went into hiding some months ago.

Many had walked for miles to be there. Ms Mbuthuma, flanked by traditional rulers and elderly men, addressed the room and her booming voice was met by applause and cheering.

“This is a fight for the future of our children. We cannot sell out their legacy at the promise of making easy money. If we lose our land we lose the only thing our forefathers left us with,” she told the crowd.

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