As government weighs a new application for mining rights on the scenic Wild Coast, anti-mining villagers have reported a fresh outbreak of violent intimidation. Tariro Washinyira visited the area and found a spirit of defiant resistance.
Christmas 2015 was a far from festive period for Kaizana Mbele [not his real name] and his heavily pregnant wife. After repeated violence and intimidation in their remote Wild Coast village of Mdatya in late December last year, they ran for their lives.
Delivered by Kaizana himself, the baby was born on January 1 in a nearby forest. “My wife had complications and the baby is not doing well,” he told amaBhungane.
The terror spree started on December 19 when armed men parked their car away from the village, turned off the lights, and came looking for the headwoman, Cynthia Baleni. Failing to find her, they fired volleys into the air and drove away. The next night they returned and repeated the performance.
Eight days later three villagers were ambushed by men wielding knobkerries and bushknives. One suffered a broken arm and deep gash to the head; another was hospitalised with a broken leg.
Then, from midnight until 2am on December 30, an armed group went from house to house banging on doors, calling for named individuals and firing guns.
Fear still reigns: a month later some villagers and their children are sleeping in the forest and nearby mealie fields.
Behind the violent outbreak lies a decade-long battle over whether dune mining should take place on this idyllic and ecologically sensitive stretch of coastline.
The headwoman, Cynthia Baleni, has been a ceremonial mouthpiece for anti-mining resolutions of five coastal villages most affected by the Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project. And the ambush victims were allegedly leading anti-mining activists..
Reacting to the violence, the Pondo Queen, MaSobhuzha Sigcau, called an imbizo at Komkhulu (The Great Place) last month. About 500 people from the Amadiba region, which includes Xolobeni, Mdatya, Mtolani and Sigidi villages, took part in the gathering, which amaBhungane witnessed.
The struggle atmosphere was clear – before the Imbizo started, women led a battle song from the 1980s, “Noma kubi siyaya.” – “No matter how hard it is, we will succeed.” Then came the chant and response: “Amandla … ngawethu” (power is ours).
Most walked many kilometres to attend the meeting, which was held in the open because the hall could not hold them all. The old and middle-aged outnumbered the youth – chairing the meeting was the 75-year-old Mdatya community leader, Zadla Dlamini.
Metres away lay the Wild Coast. The slope to the sea is thickly forested, with wild fruit trees such as num-nums; fields of green mealies stand in the valleys.
The women seemed to be a the forefront of of the anti-mining campaign; whenever one spoke, the crowd clapped and ululated.
And the speeches were angry. Said one of the elders: “These gangsters used to be good children before they were offered money.” Another added: “They will kill us first before they start mining. We are Pondo, we are prepared to die for our land. Even in the past our ancestors chose land and ignored a bag of money they had been offered for this same land.”
Another woman said: “My tears won’t fall on the ground for nothing. You can bring your machine guns. I am prepared to die for my land, I am not going anywhere.”
Afterwards, all the older residents gathered to talk to Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC) secretary Nonhle Mbuthuma. It was obvious that their hope lies in her and the committee.
Not a single voice spoke up for dune mining at Xolobeni.
Mbuthuma complained that police were invited to the Imbizo but failed to appear. Instead, at 4am the previous night they launched the largest operation in local memory, raiding two villages for arms.
Villagers told the imbizo that the policemen barged into their houses without warrants and then failed to find guns or other dangerous weapons.
It is an allegation Brigadier Mtutuzeli Mtukushe, cluster commander of the stations in Mbizana, Ntabankulu and Mt Ayliff, denies. “One firearm with ammunition was found and some dangerous weapons. We also found lots of dagga plants.” The raids were a routine crime-prevention operation and warrants were used, he said.
He insisted police do not take sides in community quarrels, as it is difficult to separate victim from perpetrator.
In one respect police action has met with the ACC’s approval – four men, Xolile Dimane, Thembile Ndovela, Mdlele Bhele and Mto Bhele, were arrested and charged with attempted murder in connection with the December violence.
Anti-mining activists claim that that two of the most prominent local mining advocates, Zamile Qunya and Amadiba chief Lunga Baleni, appeared at the police station an hour after the arrests in a bid to bail out the suspects.
Qunya is the founder of the Xolobeni Empowerment Company (Xolco), the empowerment partner of Perth-based Mineral Commodities (MRC), which is pushing for mining on the Wild Coast. Baleni became one of Xolco’s directors in 2014.
Qunya is also a director of the MRC-owned Tormin, the controversy-plagued dune mining operation on South Africa’s west coast.
The ACC considers it significant that one of the arrested suspects, Dimane, was a Xolobeni man employed at Tormin who had returned home for the Christmas holiday.
Qunya denied the bail allegation, saying that he went to the police station “to gain an understanding of what had happened and to try to prevent further violence”.
He also said he had no connection with Dimane other than the latter is a Tormin employee.
Smouldering for ten years
Conflict over mining in what has become known as Xolobeni – the most mineral-rich of the five planned mining blocks – has been smouldering for at least 10 years and periodically bursts into flames.
The sequence of events has been extensively reported: the grant of an old-order prospecting licence in 2002; the launch of Xolco in 2003; the escalation of community suspicion into outright rejection and sabotage in 2006/7; the granting of a full mining licence by Buyelwa Sonjica in 2008; its suspension four months later after locals confronted her at a company-sponsored celebration; and the withdrawal of the licence in 2011 after the community lodged an appeal.
With the ups and downs of the permit process has come outbreaks of violence and deaths locals perceive as suspicious. (See below)
In March last year the company applied for a new permit to mine all five blocks. The application is still pending – anti-mining residents have blocked the required environmental impact assessment.
Much is at stake: the Xolobeni operation, with a lifespan of more than 20 years, promises to be richer and longer-lasting than its West Coast counterpart.
The lease area is sizeable – 22km long and 1,5 km wide, covering 2 867 hectares.
It is estimated to contain 139 million tonnes of titanium-bearing minerals, including ilmenite, zircon, leucoxene and rutile, mainly used in pigment manufacture.
The envisaged US$200-million capital investment would include the construction of a mineral separation plant and smelter and the creation of up to 300 permanent jobs.
But an Eastern Cape government study from the mid-2000s raised large questions about the environmental hazards. Water requirements would be high and there was no firm plan to address security of supply, it said, while company documents made little mention of the planned tailings dam and its “significant” impact.
Other concerns were the possible relocation of homesteads, the impact on estuaries, increased road traffic and the effect on “the sense of place”.
It concludes by asking: Is tourism a more viable alternative?
The company insists no one will be uprooted; the ACC disagrees. According to committee secretary Mbuthuma, about 200 households face displacement and the farmland on which villagers depend will be devastated.
She added that it is unclear how villagers will be compensated and where they and their livestock will move.
“They will mine around people’s houses. Also, this is a proclaimed marine protected area – mining cannot take place here.”
The activists of the AAC believe that eco-tourism and agriculture are real development alternatives and that mining will rule out a tourism trade.
Signs the sands project enjoys official favour
Significantly, of the 25 or more conditions set by the department during last year’s scoping exercise, 18 relate to water use. They include a permit from the water affairs department to draw water from estuaries and a full-blown hydrological study.
Mbuthuma said the national department seemed to have turned a deaf ear to the community’s pleas. She said that during a visit Komkhulu (in July last year), Bonga Qina, former director of mineral regulation, said: “Mining must occur where there are minerals. That is why I am here, that we must mine.”
“We told him we are prepared to go to court to defend our rights. Section 24 of the constitution gives us the right to a safe environment and sustainable economic development”.
There are other signs the sands project enjoys official favour. The mineral resources department has approved the company’s scoping report for the latest permit application. And the local municipality, Bizana, is moving to rezone the coastal area from conservation to mining in its development plan.
Traditional politics form a background, including a tug of war between the pro-mining Chief Lunga Baleni and his subordinate, headwoman Cynthia Baleni.
Community leaders said that twice last year, the chief tried to dismiss her and shut down the coastal traditional authority, while demanding that she return the keys of the coastal meeting hall and official stamp. The villagers are said to have blocked the move.
The ACC’s Mbuthuma claimed Baleni was a strong opponent of mining until he was made a director of Xolco, which has 26% of the sands project.
Mbuthuma said the mining group expected him to use his position to persuade the community to support the mining, and accused Baleni of forsaking his duties, including that of attending community meetings.
Baleni, who now lives in Port Edward, initially agreed to an amaBhungane request for an interview on January 20.
On the day, his spokesperson said on the phone that the chief is no longer allowed to speak to the media and could not meet us because they were on their way to East London.
The rift reaches further up the traditional hierarchy. Villagers say they do not recognise Zanozuko Sigcau as Pondo king because he was imposed by the Eastern Cape government and supports mining
But they have some powerful backers, including Queen Masobhuza and Crown Princess Wezizwa Sigcau.
The princess told amaBhungane: “This is not just a Xolobeni or Amadiba battle – it is a Pondoland battle. It is Xolobeni today and tomorrow somewhere else, and we are going to put a stop to it.
“We’re mobilising chiefs and village heads to sensitise them before the Xolobeni land problem spreads.”
The Xolobeni villagers insist that because they have land they are not poor and do not need mining to develop the area.
The view is summed up in an angry ACC statement in response to Sanral claims, in support of Wild Coast highway development, that Xolobeni is one of South Africa’s poorest regions: “When shall this stupidity stop? How can we be poor when we have land? We grow maize, sweet potatoes, taro, potatoes, onions, spinach, carrots, lemons, guava and we sell some of it to the market. We eat fish, eggs and chicken. This agriculture is what should be developed here.
“It is not falling apart like in many other places in Eastern Cape. We have cattle for weddings and traditional rituals. We have goats for ceremonies. We are NOT a part of the ’one out of four South Africans who go hungry to bed’. We have a life. Poor infrastructure is not poverty.”
Struggle is built into the Pondo DNA. Typifying the defiant outlook of anti-mining villagers was Mthandeni Dlamini (23), whom amaBhungane spoke to after the imbizo. Dlamini comes from a child-headed household of seven and who walked 10 km to attend the gathering.
Land and livestock are very important to him and his siblings, as their sole inheritance when their parents died in 2013.
“I am a black man, fourth generation of the Pondo tribe; my umbilical cord is here; for 23 years the only life I know is here in Amadiba,” Dlamini said. “I feel the land belongs to me.
“It should not be assumed because I am new generation, I want to change my way of life. Traditional healers from the area use the trees to cure our ailments; we have cemeteries at home where we worship our ancestors.
“I enjoy walking on the coast. I need fresh air and we have tourism going on here. But it is always about whites – they want to drive us out like stray dogs. If we bark we’re told shut up, go away.
“But our minds are always regarded as black; no one wants to hear our voices. The white-owned mining company want is to drive us away from the coast.
“But today I’m declaring: there won’t be mining in Xolobeni or any other section of Amadiba.”
Those in favour of mining
Claims that the majority of Amadiba residents are against mining are subjective, emotive and baseless, and have been disproved by a public participation process, says the man spearheading the push for mining in Xolobeni, Zamile Qunya.
“Yes, there is some opposition, but the majority of Xolobeni community support mining,” Qunya said.
“That is recorded in the public participation process. The rest is emotive hearsay by self-interested, external anti-mining lobbyists who oppose the project on environmental grounds, but who offer no alternative and seem to want to condemn the Amadiba Pondo land to lack of development.”
Quinya said at least 10 families have voluntarily moved from the proposed mining area because of underdevelopment.
“There is no running water, no transport, schools or clinics. People there are not yet civilised. They still follow old traditions like polygamy. People are dying from HIV/AIDS, they have no information. If our people are not educated there will be no change.”
Qunya said neither he nor any of the companies linked to him condone violence.
The same applied to Chief Lunga Baleni, the rightful chief of the Amadiba tribal authority, which covers the Umgungundlovu tribal area – the centre of resistance to mining.
Qunya said the chief was chosen by the tribal council to be the lawful custodian of Xolco’s 26% empowerment shareholding in the Australian-owned company seeking to mine.
He said the December violence was related to a dispute over a ward council which the leader of the anti-mining Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), Nonhle Mbuthuma, wanted to contest. Mbuthuma described this as “a lie”.
Qunya accused the ACC of confusing people by telling them lies that mining is bad for the community” and of “causing chaos so that they get more funding”.
“If there are no donors involved, how come they afford a lawyer like Richard Spoor?”
Asked why the turnout for January 22 imbizo was so large if the residents were happy with mining, he said people attended because of ACC intimidation.
The participants seen by amaBhungane were civilised, “but the rest of the village are not; they are poor and they do not wear shoes”, he said.
He said Xolebeni is far from the area where mining will take place and there will be no prospecting where people are living.
“Scientifically it is wrong to say people will be moved. The environmental impact assessment will determine this.
“When we came up with the idea of mining, no one was settling in that area. According to legislation passed during Bantu Holomisa’s time we must not build houses within one kilometre of the coast.”
Asked why Xolobeni residents were moved to work at West Coast operation of MSR Tormin – of which he is a director – he said the relocated workers are benefiting from learnerships.
“I took 33 but my target is 50 people. They are trainees in laboratories, the separation plant and mining. We must be equipped with skilled people from Xolobeni when mining starts.”
Qunya said the EIA is under way and due for submission in about April this year.
A history of violence
The December 2015 outbreak was by no means the first violent episode which villagers perceive as being associated with plans to mine the dunes at Xolobeni, though the evidence is often contested.
Other incidents include:
- In 2003 Mandoda Ndovela, a headman from the Wild Coast bvillage of Mpindwini, was shot dead, allegedly after voicing outspoken criticism of proposed Xolobeni dune mining at a meeting at the Pondo king’s “Great Place” outside Lusikisiki. Police found no evidence connecting his murder to the mining proposal, though the case is still being investigated.
- In June 2007 anti-mining leader Scorpion Dimane publicly rejected the Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project allegedly after a sponsored trip to see dune mining in action in Richard’s Bay. On January 1 2008, Dimane was dead of what his death certificate described as a middle ear infection. Despite this innocent explanation, his death sparked fear and suspicion among anti-mining activists.
- In August 2007, Zamokwakhe Qunya, the brother of Xolco founder Zamile Qunya, allegedly blocked social worker John Clarke and others on the road to Xolobeni to prevent them meeting Belgian tourists. Clarke, who claims a death threat was made, laid charges of intimidation with the police and Qunya appeared in court. The case was ultimately dropped.
- In September 2008 pupils at the Xolobeni Junior Secondary School were reportedly sjambokked by police after refusing to sing at an event organised to celebrate the granting of mining rights, according to Clarke. Clarke reported the incident to the police’s Independent Complaints Directorate, the office of the president and four cabinet ministers. It is not clear what happened to the complaint.
- In April 2015 accounts allege mine employees travelling in a convoy through Mtentu village to reach one of the prospecting areas were stopped by a blockade. Villagers said firing at random then followed and some people were beaten with pistol butts, allegedly by members of the convoy. A bullet is said to have grazed the head of a community member.
- In May 2015 an elderly woman was beaten with a knobkerrie and hacked with a bush knife, while nocturnal shots caused a woman to flee from her home and hide in a river gorge with her twin babies. Zamokwakhe Qunya was cited as an aggressor in a successful application for a temporary High Court interdict against continued assaults and intimidation. The interdict was ultimately withdrawn by agreement.
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