A vocal opponent of plans to extend Somkhele coal mine, one of South Africa’s largest open coal mines, situated on the border of iMfolozi-Hluhluwe Game Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal, was murdered on Thursday night.
65-year-old Fikile Ntshangase was a leading member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, (MCEJO), which is involved in two increasingly complex and protracted legal battles, one of which is to halt all mining at Somkhele until its owners, Tendele Coal (Pty) Ltd, comply with all the required environmental and other laws.
The other is to set aside additional mining rights granted in 2016 and covering more than 222 square kilometres.
Tendele argues that only a fraction of this will be mined, but many people in surrounding communities are opposed to Tendele’s mining operations, saying insufficient public consultation had taken place in securing mining rights and that their consent was not sought.
Papers before the courts also allege a failure by Tendele to properly assess and mitigate the environmental damage caused by its mining operations. This includes the mine’s impact on the air, water, soil, visual quality of the environment, and people’s livelihoods, health and wellbeing.
Ntshangase was very vocal in her resistance to the mining, and allegedly turned down a bribe of R350,000 made recently to get her to withdraw her support for current legal cases before court, according to MCEJO’s attorney Kirsten Youens.
Ntshangase was apparently shot and killed in her home in Ophondweni, just 500m away from a planned mining extension, at about 6:30pm on Thursday evening (though police still need to confirm these details).
Tendele’s chief executive officer, Jan du Preez, condemned the murder and other recent incidents of violence and intimidation. He links these to concerns in the community about the retrenchments and the threat of future job losses. He said allegations of bribery were blatant lies.
Earlier this year, he told GroundUp that deposits of anthracite, a high-value coal (used in ferrochrome production) at the mine’s existing diggings were coming to an end, and that they needed to break new ground or shut down entirely.
Were this to happen, 1,600 mine employees and subcontractors would be out of work in a poor part of the province where jobs are scarce, said Du Preez.
He said the mine was being held to ransom by 19 of the 145 families in two designated mining areas who had refused generous offers of compensation to relocate.
He reckons the payouts to directly affected families in the Ophondweni and Emalahleni villages areas were double, and in some cases, ten times more than the market value of their homes.
“If you have a one-square-metre shack, you get a R200,000 upset allowance, and then we changed that later in the day to say that the minimum an old house can get is R400,000,” said Du Preez.
He said the average payout was now R750,000.
“I can tell you the Zulu king and the Office of the KwaZulu-Natal premier go berserk. It’s mind boggling how much we pay. It’s close to blackmail,” said Du Preez.
On top of this, Tendele has to negotiate with the Ingonyama Trust on the money it pays them annually for leasing land, a matter shrouded in secrecy.
As in much of Zululand and elsewhere in rural South Africa, villagers have customary rights but not title deeds. In KZN, land is the property of the Zulu king and held by the Ingonyama Trust, representing 5.1 million people.
This gives inordinate powers to chiefs and traditional leaders, who represent the king, to negotiate with mining companies. It also means the compensation villagers receive from the mine is limited to covering their houses and any improvements, as well as the costs of moving and relocating, but not for the land itself.
In a scathing report released last year, the South African Human Rights Commission said restricting compensation to physical structures on the land was below global industry standards, and causing “systemic economic displacement and impoverishment within mining-affected communities”.
An estimated 158,000 people live in the Mpukunyoni tribal area, which includes the Somkhele mine, the area where its expansion is planned and beyond. Many have been drawn into the long struggle over Tendele, first over the opening of the mine in 2007 and now plans to extend it.
Most villagers living near Somkhele coal mine eke out a living, keeping a few goats, cattle and chickens and growing food for the table. They blame the mine for polluting water sources and depriving them of grazing and arable land. They have long complained of noise and dust. And they point to the walls and windows of their homes, cracked they say, by regular blasting.
The health of Somkhele residents is another pressing concern, says Sheila Berry of the Global Environmental Trust, which helped establish the MCEJO.
“We hear of many complaints about respiratory illnesses from people living near the mine,” says Berry.
“There is also a high infant mortality rate from respiratory-related problems, and the health of elderly people is compromised.”
The removal of family graves by the mine has also aggravated people.
“When the mine came in, they told people they had to leave, paid certain amounts which people had to accept,” said Youens.
“Then the graves were dug up and the remains of the deceased buried in a cemetery without being properly identified.”
Elias Sikhosana, a Somkhele village elder, is among more than 225 families relocated since 2007 to make way for the mine.
“To any human being it is painful to dig up someone that has been buried for so long. It opens wounds even worse than when that person died. And in Zulu culture, we keep the graves of our loved ones close to us so we can go to them at any time for guidance, as if they were still with us.”
It’s an old wound, but lately the anger, and the stakes, have been rising.
Youens said over the past two years, Tendele’s management briefs and open letters to staff and directly affected communities, had pinned the blame for potential loss of jobs, contracts, and tax revenue on those families in Ophondweni and Emalahleni that had repeatedly declined offers of compensation.
This was tantamount to inciting violence and it has put the lives of her clients at risk, said Youens.
“All those refusing to sign relocation agreements with Tendele have received death threats,” said Youens.
She said Ntshangase’s murder followed a drive-by shooting in April at the Ophondweni home of Tholakele Mthethwa, and an earlier attack on the home of Sabelo Dladla, a lead applicant in both court cases. Dladla has since withdrawn as an applicant, citing safety as a principal reason and the impact of closure of the mine could have in communities still reeling from the impact of Covid-19.
Dladla and six other members of MCEJO have since signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Tendele to “set aside their differences” and find a way to ensure the survival of the mine “as only a strong mine can assist the community in the fight against poverty, and make a difference in the life of some of the 220,000 people in the community”.
The MOU further states: “The MCEJO Committee members that sign this document agree that all pending court cases and all outstanding legal issues between the Parties shall be withdrawn”.
It further advises the seven MCEJO signatories to seek a mandate from all its members and legal representatives “to not bring any legal action or court proceedings” against Tendele from the date when the mining starts in the new mining areas.
Youens characterises the memorandum as a typical underhanded dealing by Tendele. She said MCEJO was investigating allegations that various members of MCEJO had been offered as much as R350,000 to withdraw from litigation.
“That’s all nonsense,” said Du Preez. He said the company was engaging with affected residents in good faith through an inter-ministerial task team that had been established to resolve all disputes arising over planned mine expansion, and its existing operations.
He said Tendele had done much to improve the lives of many in the area, well beyond the wages it pays its workers and subcontractors.
He said this included contracts with 70 local entrepreneurs, skills training for unemployed people, agricultural and basic infrastructure projects sponsored by the mine, educational initiatives at creches, primary schools and an edu-centre for high school and university students.
He said it would be a travesty of justice if the mine had to close because 19 families refused to relocate, or if a court application preventing the planned mine extension were to succeed.
“It would deal a death blow to the mining industry in South Africa, and scare away investors,” said Du Preez.
But Youens argues that Tendele has only itself to blame for not being able to proceed with its mining expansion plans.
“The actual truth is that Tendele cannot commence site preparation or core mining activities until such time as it has obtained all necessary environmental authorisations,” she says.
Tendele needs to implement an approved biodiversity offset plan; obtain amendments to its official environmental management plan to mine in exclusion and buffer zones; secure a water use licence; a waste management licence, and permits to remove protected plants; and exhume and relocate graves, said Youens.
Du Preez said while mistakes had been made in the past, all these matters had since been satisfactorily addressed. All that was lacking was the finalisation of relocation agreements for the 19 families holding out.
In an attempt to resolve this stand-off, Tendele applied to the Pietermartizburg High Court in May this year to intervene and determine compensation payouts to the 19 families in Ophondweni and Emlalahleni.
But after sworn statements answering the application were filed, Tendele postponed its application indefinitely and asked to mediate.
In her affidavit, Ophondweni villager, Tholakele Mthethwa, states: “I was born on top of a seam of coal of the hardest and most compact quality: anthracite.”
“Tendele asked the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) for a right to scoop that coal out from under me and to sell it for profit. They never asked me or my neighbours for permission to do so as required by law. They did not even bother to attempt to reach agreement with me on the terms on which they would move me, my family, my ancestors, or any of my neighbours from our ancestral land. Despite this, the DMRE gave them a mining right covering over 200 square kilometres. This was unlawful. Blatantly.”
She continues with a detailed account of how representatives of the mine and traditional authorities put pressure on her family to sign a relocation agreement, and how finally, her home was raked by gunfire in a drive-by shooting as her family were settling in for the night, on 24 April 2020.
She said she heard the sound of a van approaching her home, and looked out her kitchen window.
“I had lights on behind me, so I assume I was visible to whoever was in the van,” said Mthethwa.
“As I closed the curtain, gunshots were fired through the window. I fell to my knees and crawled to my bedroom. Gunshots were still being shot when I arrived in the bedroom.”
“My daughter and two-year-old granddaughter had been sleeping … As soon as the shooting started, they rolled onto the floor and my daughter held my granddaughter down so that she would not stand up. They were not hit. Afterwards we found four bullets inside the house and 19 cartridges outside,” said Mthethwa.
No arrests have yet been made related to any incidents of violence and intimidation described in court papers filed by MJECO, or for Ntshangase’s murder.
Du Preez said the situation on the ground was very tense on Friday.
“We are retrenching some 400 people, and had to shut down one plant … If the mine can be saved the risk of violence will dramatically decrease,” said Du Preez.