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Opposition to South Africa coal mine persists a year after murder of activist

  • One year after the murder of South African anti-coal mining activist Fikile Ntshangase, no arrests have been made.
  • A legal application to prevent the expansion of the Somkhele coal mine, which Ntshangase strongly opposed, has again been postponed by a South African court.
  • Tensions within the communities remain high as the mining company is pushing residents to sign relocation agreements before its existing reserves are depleted in 2022.

On Oct. 22, 2020, three gunmen shot 63-year-old Fikile Ntshangase dead in her house in Ophondweni, in northeastern South Africa. One year since Ntshangase’s killing, the provincial police are still searching for the perpetrators.

“The matter is still under investigation, no arrests made,” KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson Thembeka Mbele told Mongabay.

“As there are professional hitmen involved, it is not very easy,” said Ntshangase’s lawyer, Kirsten Youens, who is now representing Ntshangase’s daughter.

Ntshangase was well known as an outspoken critic of Tendele Coal Mining Pty’s Somkhele open-cast mine, one of the largest in the country. The coal mine, on the edge of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal province, has been operating since 2007. In 2016, Tendele, a subsidiary of South African mining company Petmin, acquired a license to expand its operations by an additional 222 square kilometers (86 square miles), requiring the relocation of 21 households.

The new mining right was vehemently opposed by the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), a local activist group. In 2018, the group appealed the decision by the South African minister of mineral resources to allow the mine to expand.

As the deputy chairperson of MCEJO, Ntshangase was one of the leaders of the campaign against Tendele’s expansion plans and had been subjected to threats months before she was killed, according to her daughter, Malungelo Xhakaza.

Her killing gained attention beyond South Africa. It was highlighted in the U.N. Special Rapporteur’s analysis of killings of human rights defenders worldwide, published in April this year. It was also mentioned in a new Global Witness report on the 227 killings of land and environmental defenders in 2020. “She organised, she campaigned, and educated people about their rights. Ultimately, I believe that’s what cost my mother’s life,” Xhakaza was quoted as saying.

Within South Africa, the murder prompted outrage among environmental and human rights groups. “This murder is so emblematic of the impunity and lack of accountability by the state, mining companies and police,” said Winnet Shamuyarira, who coordinates action on militarization and violence against women at WoMin African Alliance. She puts Ntshangase’s case in line with struggles in other parts of the country, like those against a titanium mine in Xolobeni and the Ikwezi coal mine in Newcastle. “Those who say ‘NO’ to mining activities face intense repression, violence, and silencing.”

Tendele distances itself from any connection between the crime and its mining activities. “There has not been one single piece of solid evidence that links the mine to the murder,” Tendele Coal Mining’s CEO, Jan du Preez, told Mongabay. While he agreed that there is tension in the community, he said there is “propaganda against a mine that is trying to survive and in the process assist and improve the livelihood of more than 40,000 people.”

With the company promising jobs to the community, and some community members, including local traditional leaders, in favor of the mine’s expansion, tension in the community was high. “There were threats, there were bullets that had been shot,” Sifiso Dladla from Action Aid SA, who has campaigned alongside MCEJO for years, told Mongabay. As residents were increasingly urged by the mine to sign relocation agreements to make way for the new mining license, tensions reportedly increased further.

Nineteen of the 21 households that the mine seeks to relocate belong to MCEJO members. How many of these families have signed the proposed relocation agreement is unclear, as Ntshangase’s murder has left residents fearful about speaking up against the mine.

“A lot of people have been intimidated, especially those who have to sign the relocation agreement,” said Youens, whose nonprofit law firm, All Right, represents MCEJO. Their opposition, however, is still “absolutely adamant.”

While a court appeal by MCEJO and two other applicants — seeking to stop the mine from operating entirely due to irregularities in its operations — was dismissed by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal earlier this year, the application Ntshangase was spearheading, challenging its expansion, is ongoing. The application against the new mining right was lodged by MCEJO members three years ago and was scheduled for a hearing earlier this month, on Oct. 6 and 7.

But the case was postponed. “For the fifth time,” said Dladla from Action Aid SA, which in April joined MCEJO’s court application against Tendele’s expansion together with three other organizations: the Global Environment Trust (GET), Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA), and the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN).

The judge postponed the hearing due to the volume of paperwork — almost 8,000 pages were submitted by the applicants alone. The delay is causing frustration among all groups.

According to Dladla, it has led to increased pressure on community members to sign the relocation agreements, as the mine is threatening workers that their jobs are going to be lost. He called on the judiciary to speed things up and work through the documents as quickly as possible, “because people on the ground are intimidated.”

For Tendele, the issue is also pressing. According to CEO du Preez, the mine’s existing resources are going to be depleted by 2022. “Should the mine be unable very soon to begin opening up an extended area due to these actions, the mine will be forced to close and will stop operating not later than June 2022.”

Youens says the mine is under pressure for an additional reason. “The mine is trying to hurry it because they can’t get any money from the bank while there is a pending court case,” she said.

“We are trying to get an urgent case and we haven’t had a response, which is a bit frustrating.”

South African activist killed as contentious coal mine seeks to expand


Banner image: Protest against Tendele, 2018. Image by Rob Symon via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Victoria Schneider is a freelance investigative reporter based in Johannesburg. You can find her on Twitter at @vic_schneider.

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