By Fred Kockott
It was the strangest of meetings, and a blatant demonstration of the buying power of government, the mining industry and politicians.
An indication of the jamboree that lay in store on Friday first came from an early telephone discussion on Thursday with an excited Madiba Qunya, chief lobbyist for the Xolobeni Minerals Sands Project.
Preparations for the meeting were going well: 150 security marshalls had been recruited and a full day's entertainment and free food was on offer for some 7 000 people being transported in.
The destination, Xolobeni, not far from the Mthenthu estuary on the Wild Coast, is one of the most idyllic settings and ecologically sensitive environments on South Africa's coastline.
The Xolobeni Minerals Sands Project is a controversial operation that intends to strip Wild Coast dunelands of valuable titanium minerals over the next 25 years.
Qunya, together with Eastern Cape attorney, Max Boqwana, is also the brains behind the establishment of Xolco, a black empowerment entity that stands to receive a 26 percent stake in the expected multimillion-rand profits.
"I'm making so many calls, my cellphone's battery is flat every day," said Qunya, referring to his preparations for the event in association with top officials from the department of minerals and energy (DME), the Eastern Cape provincial government, the Oliver Tambo district municipality and the Mbizane local municipalities.
The occasion: the announcement by the DME minister, Buyelwa Sonjica, that the mining is going ahead.
The decision to award a mining licence - even in the face of objections from the department of environmental affairs - has sparked one of South Africa's biggest environmental controversies, a growing campaign of protest from environmentalists and divisions within the community, particularly in areas earmarked for mining.
Leading this campaign is Sustaining the Wild Coast director and Johannesburg social worker, John Clarke.
Clarke also facilitated the establishment of a community grouping, the Amadiba Crisis Committee, as a vehicle for affected residents to voice their concerns and even legally challenge the decision to grant a mining licence.
One of its leading members, Scorpion Dimane, has since died of natural causes - a middle ear infection, it states on the death certificate.
But in a rural community where superstition exists, stories are circulating that sinister motives or mysterious dark forces might have been behind Dimane's death.
This week SABC 3's 50/50 environmental programme screened a documentary giving voice to speculation that Dimane's death was not natural, insinuating that he might have been murdered for his strong, principled stance against the mining.
Such speculation has been slammed by Qunya and Xolco chairman Zeka Mnyamana, nephew of the late Dimane, as divisive propaganda
"It's not right. It's causing confusion. There are people - outsiders, environmentalists - who want to see us fight. There will be no bloodshed over mining," said Mnyamana.
It was against this backdrop that Sonjica and top DME officials arrived in Xolobeni this week to announce that mining was going ahead.
Besides free food and a full day's entertainment, identity book registration and social welfare grants were also on offer for people throughout the Amadiba district, many of whom had been transported in from areas far from where the mining is planned.
Marshalls kept a register, seemingly for mining lobbyists to record a huge groundswell of support for the project.
But a snap survey by the Sunday Tribune revealed that many of those attending did not even know that a mining announcement was on the agenda of the day's proceedings.
Qunya said the register was not for the mining company to use, but simply for security reasons, in case there is "chaos caused by these protesters".
"But as you can see 7 600 registered and there are only this handful, 60 people, who are protesting, led by the nose by John Clarke," said Qunya.
"They are empty, they know nothing," said his brother Bashin, referring to Amadiba crisis committee protesters, who, after interrupting the proceedings, were castigated by OR Tambo district mayor Zoleka Capa, saying they were playing up for the media.
Talking to journalists, Sonjica said she had come to the area to find out what people's concerns were about the mining.
But such consultation was not on the agenda, and in her speech, Sonjica declared the decision on mining was a done deal.
"We are going to mine for people to get employment," said Sonjica.
She said all environmental concerns raised about the mining were being addressed through the environmental management plan.
Like Capa, Sonjica also suggested that divisions over mining in the community had been caused by "rich whites" and attorney Richard Spoor.
Capturing the mood of the moment afterwards, local resident Nomsa Langa said, "I'm happy for the people of this place.
"The minister did the right thing. We see a bright future for our kids. They (the DME) are serious about us... We are now out of the poverty."