Mfolozi activist killed in mining dispute amid death threat claims
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DURBAN – Fikile Ntshangase, deputy chairperson of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, was murdered amid claims of death threats and bullying by those in favour of the expansion of Somkhele Coal Mine, which requires the relocation of 21 families, which Ntshangase opposed.
The violence within the rural community of Somkhele near Mtubatuba has allegedly been increasing over the years, particularly against families opposed to the expansion of the Somkhele Coal Mine owned by Tendele Coal Mining.
An application for the expansion to a 222 km² area in Mpukunyoni, now on review by the court, requires the relocation of 21 families from their ancestral land. Claims of assaults, shootings and death threats have been reported by families not willing to sign relocation agreements and compensation offers.
The latest victim of the violence was 65-year-old Fikile Ntshangase who served as the deputy chairperson of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO). The organisation represents farmers affected by the mine and seeks to highlight the impact of coal mining and the devastation for communities and wildlife.
Ntshangase was attacked last week Thursday by five gunmen who entered her home under the pretence of buying water from her tuck shop. Three men held her grandson in the yard while the others went inside the home and shot her several times.
Nathi Kunene, the community manager for Tendele Coal Mining says: “We are aware of several unfortunate incidents, all of which have been reported to the police for investigation. We continue to call for peace in the area and request all people in the community to deal with each other with respect.
“To ensure peace and stability in the area, the mine, with local leaders, has continued to work collectively and collaboratively with various spheres of government, the inter-ministerial task team assembled by the premier of KZN, with involvement of the Minister of Mines’ Ministerial Task Team, Community Safety Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs and the Royal Council.
“The mine makes offers to relocate a family using a relocation protocol which has been agreed upon by community representatives which include the traditional council, indunas, Royal House and others. The mine also provides for an upset allowance, customary rituals and for moving costs.
“Allegations of the mine offering money for the withdrawal of court cases are completely unfounded.
“The mine has placed no pressure on any family to relocate, and has spent over 10 000 hours engaging and negotiating with families for relocation to facilitate its expansion. Through this engagement, we have reached agreements with the vast majority of the families, all of whom have accepted the offers made and are now wanting to relocate to start their new lives.”
Kirsten Youens, an environmental attorney representing 19 families opposed to mining in the area, said she wanted to see Ntshangase’s killers brought to book, the masterminds behind the attacks revealed, and for the mine to take responsibility for the suffering of the community. She said they had appointed a ballistics and a forensic expert to conduct a thorough investigation.
Youens said that the attackers targeted women-headed households or those headed by elderly men.
In April, her former client, Sabelo Dlala, who had been a main applicant in the court cases against the mine was attacked and resulted in him withdrawing his application and signing an agreement with the mine.
In the same month, an elderly woman, Tholakele Mthethwa, who lives with her daughter and grandson, was a victim of a drive-by shooting and AK-47 shell casings were discovered in her yard.
“With Tholakele, we gave a lot of information to the police about individuals that had been coming to the house a few weeks before the attack. They demanded she sign the agreement with the mine or face bloodshed if she refused,” she said.
In May, Tendele served Youens’ clients with court papers summoning them to court in Pietermaritzburg for a decision on fair compensation with an intention to speed up the relocation process. Youens worked with Richard Spoor, an activist and human rights attorney, to defend the urgent application by the mine.
“I have a document of grievances since the mine started in 2007, and now they want to expand. How can you expand when you haven’t dealt with the issues of the past.
“There are people that need compensation, and Tendele does not have any environmental authorisation for any of its mining.”
Spoor said they placed the responsibility of the violence on the shoulders of the mine.
“We have a group of clients who are not satisfied with the terms that are being offered to them and the mine is playing on the fears and insecurities of the people.”
KZN violence monitor Mary de Haas said in the past few months, several MCEJO members had been offered R300 000 bribes by the mine to withdraw their cases. Some took the offer and lost their MCEJO membership.
“All those refusing to sign their properties over to Tendele Mining, have received death threats, some linked to local traditional leadership. The threat was ever-present, with suspicious vehicles seen in the area at night,” she said.
In a joint statement, rights groups and environmental organisations said strategies used by Tendele were typical of companies operating in impoverished rural communities.
“Mines dangle incentives to impoverished community members with the inevitable consequences of stirring deep community divisions, which almost always lead to violence and deaths. In rural areas that are difficult to police, it takes someone with the determination and the courage of Mama Ntshangase to promote community solidarity and resistance in the face of these strategies. There are other leaders of this calibre in MCEJO and, if anything, the assassination of Mama Ntshangase has renewed their determination to step up the fight against exploitation by the mine.”
One of the court cases brought by MCEJO against the mine will be heard at the Supreme Court of Appeal on November 3 while another concerning expansion will be heard in March 2021.