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South Africa: The Pondoland Rebellion

April 12, 2017|

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Homes and small agricultural plots dot the villages of Amadiba in South Africa's Eastern Cape province. Image by Mark Olalde. South Africa, 2017.

Homes and small agricultural plots dot the villages of Amadiba in South Africa's Eastern Cape province. Image by Mark Olalde. South Africa, 2017.

Above the rolling waves of the Indian Ocean, throughout Amadiba’s lush, green hills, funerals have become celebrations.

One by one, delegations from the area’s villages march and toyi-toyi to the meeting place while singing songs from the anti-apartheid struggle. The uniquely South African choruses swell as elderly women ululate. War drums beat chaotic melodies as young men dance and brandish sticks in the traditional manner of Pondoland.

It’s been a year since community leader and anti-mining activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe died in a hail of bullets, and the community is gathering to celebrate him on Human Rights Day, a South African holiday marking the police massacre of more than 50 people at a 1960 protest of apartheid policies. In March of last year, assassins posed as police, a blue light flashing deceptively from their car as they approached Radebe’s home in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Radebe’s teenage son was close enough to count the eight rounds they fired. Those who knew Radebe, a middle-aged owner of a taxi business, say he spoke of a hit list with his name on it just before his death and that it was his activism that led to his murder.

Radebe was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, a community group formed in 2007 to oppose an Australian mining company, Mineral Commodities Ltd, that held prospecting rights along a strip of coast more than 13 miles long and extending nearly a mile inland at some points. The company and its subsidiary, Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources SA (Pty) Ltd, which owns the project, want to mine titanium from the burnt-red dunes separating the ocean from the five villages that make up the area known as Amadiba in the Eastern Cape. For more than a decade, residents have fought proposed mining development, arguing that eco-tourism could be the area’s economic stimulus while not interfering with its agrarian lifestyle. But in a country where mineral rights are owned by the state and the minerals department argues mining is in the “national interest,” the Crisis Committee has faced an uphill battle.

Amadiba is but one of the numerous communities pushing back against projects financed by international mining ventures. In this region, the usual complaints against international mining conglomerates are exacerbated by a further complication: due to laws based around apartheid-era governance, local leaders feel empowered to make binding financial decisions about public land, creating a scenario ripe for corruption. Land in the area is held communally, and traditional governance structures—which can include kings and queens, chiefs, headmen and headwomen, and traditional councils—act as stewards. Because these areas lack private property, mining companies often cut deals with traditional leaders while eschewing public consultation and consent.

In 1913, the government began passing legislation that displaced millions of black Africans from cities and other economically important areas. These land acts created 10 bantustans or “homelands” that comprised 13 percent of the country. The tribal area of Pondoland, in which Amadiba is located, falls within the former Transkei, the largest of the homelands.

Today, an estimated 18 million South Africans live in the former homelands. Laws passed after the advent of democracy were meant to return rights to these people. Instead, apartheid-era boundaries of communal land were further entrenched in law, and traditional authorities, many of whom were either put in place under apartheid or had their families installed during the former government, were allowed to keep their positions of power. Although theoretically, traditional authorities can only act with a mandate of their community, many of these leaders are influenced by mining companies’ promises.

“The law greatly exaggerated the authority of these chiefs,” explains Brendan Boyle, who researches mining on communal land at the Land and Accountability Research Centre at the University of Cape Town. “It picked up on ideas that had been used under colonial rule and refined under apartheid of trying to give more authority to chiefs than custom ever really did.”

As new minerals became economically important and mining technology advanced, many of these formerly disregarded areas became targets for the minerals extraction industry. Suddenly, people who had been forced to start a new life in a new land were confronted with forced removal once again. Candidate attorney Johan Lorenzen is part of the Crisis Committee’s legal council. He says that his law firm has seen between 10 and 20 similar cases in the past five years alone.

“The common thread is an entrenchment of the apartheid assumption that chiefs act in a similar way to Western monarchs, that they are empowered to make decisions on behalf of their people without consent from their communities,” he says.

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An unrehabilitated gold mine marks Johannesburg’s Riverlea neighborhood near the Central Business District. Image by Mark Olalde. South Africa, 2017.

An unrehabilitated gold mine marks Johannesburg’s Riverlea neighborhood near the Central Business District. Image by Mark Olalde. South Africa, 2017.

But Pondoland has a history of rebellion against authority figures that dates back to at least the days of apartheid. In the early 1960s, the Pondoland Revolt challenged the apartheid government when revolutionary groups petitioned the United Nations for sovereignty and took up arms. Today, in the struggle against the Australian company’s titanium mine, local activists say numerous people have been killed, attacked, and threatened.

The microphone has yet to make its way to the front of the tent when Nonhle Mbuthuma, wearing a shirt emblazoned with No mining on our land!, begins singing. The crowd of several hundred comes to its feet as the Human Rights Day celebration continues. 

“Ask them why they killed Mandoda!” Mbuthuma sings, invoking the names of allegedly murdered community activists.

“Ababuze! Ababuze!” the crowd responds, using the Zulu word for “ask them.”

“Ask them why they killed Scorpion!”

“Ababuze! Ababuze!

“Ask them why they killed Bazooka!”

“Ababuze! Ababuze!”

Mbuthuma, the Crisis Committee’s secretary, has unofficially taken the mantle of community leader and Crisis Committee spokeswoman since Radebe’s murder. She is often on the move, flanked by a bodyguard, since talk of a hit list with her name on it began circulating more than a year ago.

“Once we lose land, we lose everything. We lose our identity,” she says.

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Nonhle Mbuthuma, secretary of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, remains committed to fighting the proposed mine, even when threatened with murder. Image by Mark Olalde. South Africa, 2017.

Nonhle Mbuthuma, secretary of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, remains committed to fighting the proposed mine, even when threatened with murder. Image by Mark Olalde. South Africa, 2017.

Mineral Commodities held public meetings on the mine several years ago but faced vehement, near-unanimous opposition, Mbuthuma and others say. Though traditional authorities in Pondoland are only allowed to act with community consensus, the company found an ally in the area’s chief, Lunga Baleni, after it failed to get community support.

In a signed statement stamped by the police, Baleni said he was facing a legal challenge to his chieftaincy when Zamile Qunya, a local businessman, approached him and promised to make the challenge disappear in return for his support.

“I was also informed by Mr. Qunya that a ‘Royal Family Trust’ bank account would be created and that the chieftaincy would be entitled to 4 percent of the profits obtained by the titanium mining,” Baleni’s statement said.

Both Baleni and Qunya now serve as directors of companies linked to Mineral Commodities and the mining project.

Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources, Qunya, and Baleni could not be reached for comment.

“The biggest challenge that we’re facing as a community is this mining company working hand-in-hand with our own government,” Mbuthuma says. “We are on our own as a community.”

A proposed law, currently in its final round of public consultation, could further remove land rights from people living on communal land, experts argue. The law, called the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill, was nominally proposed in Parliament to give rights to other tribal communities. However, a seemingly innocuous line in the 95-page bill is decried by experts and community activists as giving the bill much more nefarious abilities.

Traditional councils “may enter into partnerships and agreements with each other, and with…any other person, body or institution,” the proposed bill reads.

“[The bill] increases the authority of the chiefs to transact the land that they claim to own but don’t,” Boyle says. “True custom is a very consensual, very consultative process, and it has its power in the bottom, not the top. The authority comes from families and from villages, and it builds up. The chief is a chief because of the people.”

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Left: Herdsmen guide their cows through Amadiba. Right: A chemical and coal refinery in Mpumalanga. Image by Mark Olalde. South Africa, 2017.

Left: Herdsmen guide their cows through Amadiba. Right: A chemical and coal refinery in Mpumalanga. Image by Mark Olalde. South Africa, 2017.

Sibhoso Divele is one of many Amadiba residents questioning how mining could take place without the community’s consent. His home sits one hill from the ocean. A cow grazes near his small garden. Boys herd cattle across the landscape, which is dotted by the occasional small home or plot of maize. Yellow wildflowers are the only splashes of bright color amidst the thick, green grass.

“There is no benefit the mining would give us. I am a farmer. I have a cow. I plough the maize and potatoes,” Divele says. 

He explains that since the mining company arrived, so did money, food, and guns in the households of pro-mining residents. Divele doesn’t understand why his neighbors want to depend on a company for sustenance when they could farm as they please. 

But a walk through the area’s wind-swept hills begins to explain some residents’ eagerness for development. A two-lane highway circumvents the area to the west, meaning the only vehicle access is a dirt road that turns to sand tracks before disappearing in open fields. Residents say Mineral Commodities promised to build roads, a clinic, and more if mining were allowed.

“When there was no mine here, we were peaceful and the community was friendly,” Divele says. “The mine is coming to separate you, even if you are brothers.”

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Sibhoso Divele outside his home near the proposed mine site. Image by Mark Olalde. South Africa, 2017.

Sibhoso Divele outside his home near the proposed mine site. Image by Mark Olalde. South Africa, 2017.

In Mbuthuma’s family, one of her relatives was linked to the mine, and he was forced to leave the community, as a result. He was not allowed back, even to bury his child who died while away from the family’s ancestral home.

“They think when they’ve got money, they’ve got everything. But it is not everything,” Mbuthuma says.

Divele’s brother also opposes the mining project, so they, at least, remain on good terms. Descend a hill, cross a stream, and climb an adjacent hill, and you arrive at Mbolwa Divele’s home. He, too, has seen violence permeate Amadiba since the miners arrived. He says he would simply tell the companies: “There is land in Australia. Go dig there, not here.” For a few months, it did look like the company would break ground elsewhere. 

In a July 2016 press release, the company announced a plan to fully divest its stake in the project. The project should be run by South Africans “in light of the ongoing violence and threats to the peace and harmony of the local Xolobeni community,” the statement said, referring to one of the villages in Amadiba. Mineral Commodity’s spokeswoman, Anne Dunn, declined to comment for this story, although she previously said the company is “no longer involved” with the project. But in a report submitted to the Australian Securities Exchange at the end of February, it emerged that this was false.

“It is not highly probable that the transaction will complete due to required regulatory approvals, stage of negotiation of the consideration and involvement of a third party who holds shares in [Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources],” the report stated. 

Then in September, South Africa’s minerals minister announced an 18-month moratorium, which would temporarily halt any applications for mining activities in the area.

Mbuthuma calls the announcements of the moratorium and the divestment “a strategy” and never believed that either statement was true. “As people living there, it’s not the end of the road. We’ll continue to fight,” she says.

South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources, in a statement to Roads & Kingdoms, finally confirmed, “The moratorium is not yet finalized.”

We will sacrifice our bodies, our blood to save that land for our children

Other moves in government have anti-mining activists concerned about a concerted effort to open the titanium mine. For example, the local municipality’s spatial development framework—a document created by local government to determine land use—re-zoned the Amadiba coastline from eco-tourism to sand mining without extensive public consultation.

Highway expansion is also proposed to cut through the area. The Crisis Committee argues that the road is meant to service mining, although the country’s road agency says that the expansion is unrelated and that onsite work was approved by Baleni.

The community continues its struggle, now taking the issue to court, where it is asking for a decision giving it the right to consent to activities such as mining, an argument that is a first for South Africa and would remove significant power from mining houses and traditional authorities.

“This will be a bulwark against community displacement in Xolobeni and fundamentally shift the way in which a mining right application process is conducted,” Lorenzen, the legal consultant, says. 

In February, Mbuthuma delivered the keynote address to the Alternative Mining Indaba, an international meeting of mining-affected communities, in Cape Town. She often says she would rather die quickly while fighting the mine than die slowly while watching Amadiba’s land taken away, and she repeated this sentiment to the crowd.

“We will sacrifice our bodies, our blood to save that land for our children,” Mbuthuma says.