The story reads like something out of Precious Ramotswe’s casebook; something for the No 1 Lady Detective to discuss with her devoted secretary, Grace Makutsi, over mugs of strong Rooibos tea.
It’s January 2007 and a five-year-old boy has disappeared from remote Churchill village in the Northern Cape, not far from the Botswana border. People are outraged. They inform the police, who arrest three elderly farmers. Even the names of the three speak of the story’s strange remoteness: Modisaotsile Ntwagae, 65, Otlhalogantse Thebeapelo, 70, and his almost blind wife, Goitsemang Thebeapelo, 67.
Thanks to an invitation from the University of Pretoria, I’ve been having fun teaching a law course to journalism honours students. Something we discussed is that legal documents are worth examining for possible stories beyond the issue in dispute.
For example, journalists should routinely check how long it took for a matter to be decided, since undue delays could be worth a story. We also looked at the list of parties’ legal representatives, counsel and attorneys, included at the end of judgments. In the past the media would often note these legal “appearances” so everyone accessing the story would know who the lawyers were, even if they didn’t see the original document.
The annual mining indaba, now on in Cape Town, has spawned massive documentation and media reports. Organisers of the indaba – “Where the world connects with African mining” – will have expected most of this publicity. But there’s one publication which may have been unanticipated: a new booklet by the Centre for Environmental Rights titled When mines break environmental laws: how to use criminal prosecution to enforce environmental rights.
The timing is no coincidence. The launch material for the booklet notes: “As has become the norm at the indaba, the massive environmental impacts of mining are relegated to a few discussions around ‘sustainability’. The problem of non-compliance with mining, environmental and water legislation in the mining industry is simply absent from the indaba programme, as are the communities and downstream towns affected by poor environmental management and non-compliance by mining companies, past and present.”