2 August 2021
Sigidi village is not easy to access. The simplest way to get there is to avoid the long, barely navigable access road, and to cut through the Wild Coast Sun casino, on the border between the Eastern Cape and Port Edward in Kwazulu-Natal, towards the mouth of the Mzamba river.
Here, a suspension foot bridge, built in 2015 by an Austrian organisation, runs across the river. This is the local residents’ main access route to shops and job opportunities.
Women laden with groceries make the trip without breaking a sweat. Elders brave the approximately 200m climb, stopping to rest on their knobkerries every few meters.
The Mzamba river mouth marks the start of the proposed Wild Coast mining development, which would span 22km along the coast in a 1.5km-wide strip. It is also where, according to the plans of the SA National Roads Agency (SANRAL), the Wild Coast N2 Toll Road will cut through the Sigidi community, leading to an enormous suspension bridge to be built just a few metres away from the current footbridge.
On a Sunday afternoon in June, a group of at least 20 residents came out to meet GroundUp in Sigidi village. Among them were old and young people, men and women. They are all part of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), an advocacy group formed in 2007 to oppose both the mine and the road developments.
The ACC is represented by Richard Spoor Attorneys, and supported by various human rights organisations, including Amnesty International South Africa. The group has become a powerful force against the mine and road, in favour of sustainable development such as eco-tourism and sustainable farming.
Leaders have faced death-threats, assassinations, and violent attacks.
“Both these projects will disturb our peaceful lives,” 68-year-old Thembekile Dlamini told GroundUp. Dlamini was born in the village and has survived through subsistence farming.
“At this age, I’m supposed to be in one place and not be moved up and down. We will be forced to leave our houses that we built for our families. We live healthy lives. At this age, I still plant vegetables and I enjoy doing that.”
The ACC members said they oppose the road because it will cut the community in half, and pollute the environment they depend on for their livelihoods. They want the road to run at least 10km inland, where it will not disturb their way of life. They say that this was the original route when the Wild Coast N2 Toll Road project was first proposed in 1978, as a more direct route between Lusikisiki and Mzamba, and that the route was changed to accommodate the needs of the controversial mineral sands mine along the coast.
SANRAL denies that the route was planned to serve the mine. But the Australian mining company with a 56% share in the Xolobeni mining project, Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC), said in its mining rights application that the N2 Toll Road will be used to transport minerals.
SANRAL’s project manager, Craig McLachlan, insists that the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road project, which starts in East London and ends in Durban, will benefit rural communities by encouraging tourism and opening the area to economic opportunities. It’s part of the National Development Plan which is supported by all parliamentary political parties, McLachlan says.
“The new shorter, flatter, faster and safer N2 route will directly reduce traffic-cost, saving approximately R1.5 billion per annum for freight and other road users,” McLachlan told GroundUp.
He says a route 10km from the coast was indeed considered but it was found to be unfeasible. The current route has fewer environmental and technical challenges and will involve minimal relocation and social disruption, he says.
But ACC members at Sigidi village say they don’t want big developments: they want proper municipal access roads, houses and toilets.
“The last time we had proper service delivery in this village was between 2006 and 2007. They built us a few RDP houses and toilets. After that it has been nothing but empty promises,” says Zanele Mbuthuma, a resident of Sigidi and ACC member.
Proper municipal access roads would unlock more opportunities than the N2 Toll Road, they said.
Sinegugu Zukulu, an environmental activist from Xolobeni, says that the N2 Toll Road and the developments it will attract are incompatible with the way of life in the area.
“People say the road will bring about development, but my question is: Whose development? Who will be the owner of that development?”
Zukulu says that the customary land will become privatized, enabling wealthy people to profit from large tourism developments, while the local residents will be employed as labourers. Tourism developments should instead be owned by the communities themselves, he says.
In terms of the Interim Informal Land Rights Act, SANRAL has to get consent from the community.
A 2011 survey of the communities along the route between Port St Johns and Port Edward, conducted by the Human Science Resource Council, showed that 98% of residents supported the development. SANRAL says it has obtained Community Access Agreements with all the communities along the route, but has faced challenges in the villages of Mdatya and Sigidi, in the Umgungundlovu area.
The ACC says that consent should be sought at Komkhulu (Great Place) on the coast, a traditional forum presided over by the community’s iNkosasana (head woman) where all community members can voice their concerns.
One ACC member told GroundUp that he is still on the fence about the road development, but maintains that the decision should be made at Komkhulu out of principle.
In 2020, says McLachlan, a meeting was held at the Dangeni Komkhulu (Great Place) where the Amadiba Traditional Council, including the Umgungundlovu traditional leaders, had “resolved that the project should continue as planned.”
But the ACC says that is the wrong forum to discuss matters affecting the Umgungundlovu community and the decision should be made at the coastal Komkhulu. The committee says if other communities within Amadiba want the road, that is their right, but the community of Sigidi should have the right to say no.
They accuse SANRAL of dealing with the leaders of the traditional council in a top-down approach, rather than engaging with community members.
In Amadiba, iNkosi (“Chief”) Lunga Baleni initially opposed the Toll Road development but changed his position after becoming a director of Xolobeni Mining Company (XolCo), the black economic empowerment beneficiary of the mining project. GroundUp tried to contact Baleni but he did not respond.
On 7 June, a meeting between SANRAL and the Sigidi community took place, arranged by the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Municipality. The meeting was held at the local school, not at Komkhulu as the ACC had asked. The aim of the meeting was for SANRAL to seek the permission of the community, in the form of a Community Access Agreement, to conduct investigations and surveys within the community area.
McLachlan arrived two hours late, citing the bad access roads as a reason, along with project liaison officer Zeka Mnyamane, and Eastern Cape MEC for Public Works Babalo Madikizela. Mnyamane is a former spokesperson for the Xolobeni Mining Company (XolCo). iNkosi Baleni also attended.
The ACC told the meeting (1) that they want the route to be changed so that it does not run through Sigidi, and (2) that the community meetings should take place at Komkhulu.
Community members informed Madikizela of what they deem to be a “history of intimidation, fake meetings, and disrespect”. Madikizela apologised to the community members, adding: “I can see on your placards. They don’t say the N2 should not be built. They say ‘Move the N2 away from the coast.’”
It was then agreed that delegations would meet to discuss the matter and return to report back to the community at Komkhulu on the coast. McLachlan says the MEC, Mayor, and SANRAL will meet the ACC’s leadership to find a way forward.
Johan Lorenzen, an associate at Richard Spoor Attorneys representing members of the Xolobeni community, says customary law requires that consent is given by community members and not elite partners.
“SANRAL works with all recognised and legitimate stakeholders,” said McLachlan. “According to their legitimate leaders, the overwhelming majority of people in the Amadiba area are frustrated with the very limited number of local residents that are delaying the N2 project.”
Fanele Ndovela of Xholobeni Youth for Sustainable Development supports the road because it will unlock new opportunities for subsistence farmers to sell their produce at the markets. But he says that SANRAL’s engagement with stakeholders is flawed. “Any agreement should be with the community”, he says.
Ndovela also accused the ACC of exercising undue influence over the coastal Komkhulu, making it an unwelcome space for those who support the road.
One member of the ACC admitted that there have been incidents in which pro-road advocates have been intimidated and chased away.
Nonhle Mbuthuma, spokesperson for the ACC, says that the organization does not encourage such behaviour and that Komkhulu is a place for all. She said that pro-mine community members are not coming to Komkhulu because they know they will be in the minority.
If the project does go ahead, the next step for the ACC would be to ensure that those residents who would have to be resettled are protected.
In nearby Jama village, which falls outside of uMgungundlovu, construction on Mtentu Bridge started in 2017 and several residents have been resettled to make way for the new road. Some are happy with the process, some are not.
Winnie Mdolwana, a 37-year-old woman from Jama village, was resettled with her family of 12. She is satisfied with their new arrangement, saying that she now has two extra rooms in her house and that SANRAL gave the family two water tanks. She was also employed as an office assistant at the Mtentu bridge construction site. There was also cash compensation, but Mdolwana did not want to disclose the amount. All nine of the family’s graves were moved and they are still able to farm.
But a 72-year-old woman, who asked not to be named, told GroundUp that those who questioned the resettlements were told that the land belongs to the chief. “I had a very big farm. They promised to move my farm here and fence it. It’s been four years waiting for them,” she said.
She said that she was only given R45,000 for her land. “The money was not enough but I had to accept it, because the land belongs to the chief,” she said.
McLachlan says that for land acquisition and relocation processes, SANRAL complies with the Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform’s procedures and that residents are “placed in an equal or better situation through the relocation process.”
“To our knowledge no Jama resident who has been relocated has complained about their new houses or situation,” McLachlan says.
“Most local residents’ primary livelihood are a combination of social grants and remittances from family members working elsewhere which are completely unaffected by a relocation. Any non-structural subsistence farming improvements such as a kraal or ploughed land are also either compensated for or replaced depending on the agreement made,” McLachlan says.
He says that SANRAL’s resettlement action plan was accepted by the Department of Environmental Affairs.
Some people support the N2 Toll Road, in the hope of jobs as a result of its construction.
McLachlan said small businesses, mostly from the OR Tambo and Alfred Nzo districts, would earn income of “over R4 billion” from the project, and construction work would create approximately 8,000 jobs, paying wages of over R750 million to local labour. “An estimated 21,300 and 28,100 indirect jobs will also be created,” McLachlan told GroundUp.
But construction on the Mtentu bridge in Jama village was halted in 2018, as a result of protests linked to local procurement and employment. McLachlan said the suspension of the work was lifted in January 2019, but when GroundUp visited the sites there was no activity at all.
This is the second in a three-part series on Xolobeni, where members of a small community have been battling for years against a road and mine project. On Thursday we will publish: is there a future in eco-tourism on the Wild Coast?