Threats and murder won’t stop South Africa’s environmental activists

Mbuthuma and Mama Ntshangase had met numerous times, connected by a shared struggle against mining practices they saw as exploitative, and by a shared love for self-sustaining communities. 

“We have gone to Somkhele to meet the activists there and they have come to Xolobeni,” Mbuthuma says. “There was solidarity. But now the women in Somkhele are afraid, and many have gone into hiding. It breaks my heart, the situation there is very bad.” 

In February, 19 bullets were fired into the home of another anti-mining activist, Tholakele Mthetwa – after she refused to sign relocation papers to make way for Tendele’s expansion – according to her lawyer. Mbuthuma believes such violence is gendered. “I think they do target women because they know that women care about the coming generations. Women care about leaving a sustainable legacy for their children and for the community. We have seen some men change their tune after getting individual [financial] promises, but never women.” 

Sustainability vs exploitation, state vs local

Instead of selling the land to mining corporations, Mbuthuma wants the Wild Coast community’s sustainable methods of development to grow. Locals produce their own food, which they sell to neighbouring cities, they fish in the waters off the Wild Coast and they have a booming ecotourism industry that attracts visitors from Latin America, Asia and the Western world. 

During South Africa’s severe coronavirus lockdown, Mbuthuma says the communities of Xolobeni didn’t take government food packages, but grew their own food. “Even some people that were pro-mining have become anti-mining because, during lockdown, the land took care of them in ways that the government couldn’t.” 

In their fight, indigenous environmental activists such as Mbuthuma contend not just with the mining corporations but with South Africa’s political elite too. In September 2016, members of Mbuthuma’s anti-mining group, ACC, were met with tear gas and bullets when the South African police were called to ‘protect’ the minister of mineral resources, Gwede Mantashe, who was meeting with pro-mining groups in the area. 

Despite a lack of consensus from the community, and ongoing legal disputes, it seems the state is fully behind MRC. In a document entitled ‘2020 half-yearly presentation’, the Australian company asserts that “The Company has received approval for its future 2019-2023 Social Labour Plan from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.”

Johan Lorenzen of Richard Spoor, a South African law firm that has represented environmental, human rights and community interests for decades, says his clients are vulnerable, with little to no impetus for the state to protect them. The mining companies seem to have the state on their side but when activists such as Fikile Ntshangase are killed, there is a “lack of resolve” and no efforts to bring violence to an end, he says. 

Lorenzen’s firm secured a pro-community high court victory in 2018, which recognises that for mining activities, there should be enthusiastic buy-in from communities. But pursuing judicial intervention can itself be dangerous. 

Human Rights Watch says that Ntshangase was “killed after her refusal to withdraw legal challenges to existing and future mining operations”. Several of South Africa’s environmental organisations agree.

A statement by Earthlife Africa, Lawyers for Human Rights and the Social Justice Coalition, among others, chronicles the dispute between MJECO and Tendele. The statement charges that state and traditional authorities actively assisted the mining company “in its efforts to orchestrate a withdrawal“ of MJECO’s court challenges against mining expansion. 

Ntshangase was murdered a week before one of the court cases brought by MCEJO was scheduled to be heard in the supreme court of appeal.

Colonialism then and now

These conflicts between the needs of indigenous communities in the global south and the capitalist appetites of foreign companies is now centuries old. From Congo to South Africa, such disputes were interwoven with colonialism and imperialist violence. Today, mining and other extractive companies continue to march into destitute communities waving cheap incentives, and collude with and corrupt public officials as they seek to sustain and expand their empires. 

Then and now, the companies’ operations lead to pollution, forced displacement of people and other environmental and human rights abuses. It is activists such as Nonhle Mbuthuma and Fikile Ntshangase who stand between the companies and indigenous communities. They pay a high price for their opposition, from aggressive harassment to murder. 

This post was originally published on Radio Free.