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Latest Killing Amplifies Danger Facing Rights Activists in South Africa

December 01, 2020
tags:#coal-mining, #anti-coal, #fossil fuel, #activism
located:South Africa
by:Cyril Zenda
On October 22, Fikile Ntshangase (65), leader of a community group that has been opposing expansion of a coal mine, was shot dead in her home in a chilling reminder of the mortal dangers South African anti-mining activists, environmentalists and human rights defenders face daily.

“I refuse to sign. I cannot sell out my people and if need be I will die for my people.” These were the words of Fikile Ntshangase, a 65-year old South African villager who, together with other members of her community, have resisted their eviction to make way for the expansion of a coalmine.

A few days later, Ntshangase was dead. The grandmother was shot five times on the evening of October 22 by six men who walked into her house near Somkhele coal mine in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. 

Ntshangase was a Vice-Chairperson of a committee of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), a community-based organisation that has legally challenged a planned expansion of the coal mine which is near the Hluhluwe–Imfolozi park, the oldest nature reserve in Africa. Community members have publicly denounced the impacts of the coalmine on their health and livelihoods and 19 families have for more than a decade resisted being displaced from their ancestral land to make way for the mine expansion.

The coalmine, which is owned by Tendele Coal Mining Ltd, has been the main focus of a protracted authorised dispute between the corporate, conservationists, and a few locals who are in favour of extending it for financial causes.

About 225 other families have been moved from the area since 2007 when Tendele started its mining operations, but 19 families, including that of Ntshangase, have obdurately resisted all efforts to remove them.

Bribes And Death Threats

According to MCEJO’s attorney Kirsten Youens, Ntshangase was killed days after allegedly turned down a bribe of R350, 000 ($22,200) made recently to get her to withdraw her support for current legal cases before court.  

She said Ntshangase’s murder followed a drive-by shooting in April at the home of Tholakele Mthethwa, another member, and an earlier attack on the home of Sabelo Dladla, a lead applicant in both court cases. Dladla has since withdrawn as an applicant in the cases, citing his safety as a principal reason. 

Dladla and six other members of MCEJO have since signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the mining firm 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”.

To Youens the memorandum is a typical example of underhand dealings by Tendele. She said MCEJO was investigating allegations that several of its members had been offered as much as R350,000 to withdraw from litigation. 

“All those refusing to sign relocation agreements with Tendele have received death threats,” said Youens.

Killing Roundly Condemned

Ntshangase’s murder was condemned by dozens of human rights and environmental rights groups locally and globally with calls for the killers to face justice.

“While shocking, the killing of environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase is not surprising,” said Katharina Rall a researcher with Human Rights Watch, which wrote a letter to the South African police urging them to thoroughly investigate the latest killing.

She said environmental defenders such as Ntshangase have long faced threats for voicing their concerns about mining activity on nearby communities.

“When, in 2018, I visited Somkhele, a town near a coal mine in KwaZulu-Natal, several community activists told me they had been threatened, physically attacked and their property damaged after speaking out about the health risks of coal mining. Two years later, on October 22, Ntshangase was gunned down in her home. No arrests have been made.”

South Africa Now Dangerous For Activists

Arnold Tsunga, a strategy adviser with the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders’ Network (SAHRDN), said there is little doubt Ntshangase’s murder is linked to her anti-mining activities.

“As I understand it, there is a hit squad in the area targeting people who are opposed to the mining,” he pointed out.

Tsunga said although there was no evidence linking Tendele to the violence, the way the company dealt with opposition to its activities had exposed the activists to danger.

“The company has publicly named those [groups] who oppose its mine extension. This raises tensions in the communities and the anti-mining activists then become targets,” he said. 

Global Witness’s latest figures show that a record 212 land and environmental defenders around the world were murdered in 2019, an increase of 46 on 2018’s total. Although South Africa was not listed among the countries where these murders have occurred, Tsunga’s organisation has come to the conclusion that the country, which recorded more than 21,000 murders last year alone, has become an increasingly hazardous place for anti-mining activists, environmentalists and human rights defenders to work in.

“Many activists have been murdered here over the last few years, but it is often difficult to link their deaths to their activism, even though we suspect that is often the case,” he said.

Activism Met With Harassment, Intimidation or Violence

South Africa is the world’s seventh-largest coal producer. HRW says the absence of effective government oversight has allowed mining to harm the rights of communities across the country in various ways. “It has depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil and water, destroyed arable land and ecosystems, and often resulted in displacement and inappropriate grave relocation practices.”

People living in communities affected by mining activities across South Africa have mobilised to press the government and companies to respect and protect community members’ rights from the potentially serious environmental, social, economic, and health-related harm of mining. In many cases, such activism has been met with harassment, intimidation, or violence.

“We Know Our Lives Are In Danger”

In its poignant 2019 report titled “We Know Our Lives Are In Danger” published jointly with GroundWork, the Centre for Environmental Rights, and Earthjustice, HRW documented how activists in mining-affected communities across the country have experienced threats, physical attacks or property damage that they believe are consequences of their activism. 

“One high-profile case is the killing of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe at his home in Xolobeni, Eastern Cape, in March 2016,” HRW said of its report. “He and other community members had raised concerns about displacement and destruction of the environment from a titanium mine proposed by the Australian company Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources. No suspects have been arrested in his killing.

“We also found that government officials or companies sometimes deliberately created or exploited community divisions or closed their eyes to intimidation and abuse between community members, to isolate or weaken critics. Tendele has sought to brand community members opposing its operations as anti-development or acting against the community interest, putting them at further risk of being attacked or threatened by those benefiting from the mine.”

According the HRW report, in March 2018, a community member from Somkhele told researchers: “The mine is not directly threatening people, but they will [intimidate] their employees by telling them that they will lose their jobs if the activism continues.” Earlier that year, the company’s management had circulated a memorandum to employees warning of lay-offs, blaming “a few community members [who] … choose to stand in the way of future development and huge economic and social investment and development in the community.”

Crocodile Tears?

In a statement issued following Ntshangase’s killing, Tendele, along with local leaders, called for an investigation of what it described as “senseless killing”, while at the same time emphasising its concerns about the possible closure of the mine as a result of the pending court cases and resistance to relocations.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
South Africa
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“I refuse to sign. I cannot sell out my people and if need be I will die for my people.” Fikile Ntshangase
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Together with other members of her community, they have resisted their eviction to make way for the expansion of a coalmine.
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About 225 other families have been moved from the area since 2007.
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