Conservation news

South African activist killed as contentious coal mine seeks to expand

Tendele mine, Somkhele. Image courtesy Rob Symons.

Tendele mine, Somkhele. Image courtesy Rob Symons.

  • Unknown gunmen have shot and killed a prominent critic of a coal mine and its proposed expansion in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.
  • No arrests have been made or suspects identified in the killing of Fikile Ntshangase, 65, at her home near the Tendele coal mine, which borders the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game park.
  • Ntshangase was part of a group taking legal action to prevent the mine’s expansion on the grounds that its existing operations fail to comply with environmental and other laws.
  • The mine operator has linked the killing and other recent incidents of violence and intimidation to concerns in the community about job losses, suggesting that the violence will decrease if the proposed expansion is approved.

On Oct. 22, four gunmen shot and killed anti-mining activist Fikile Ntshangase in her home in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. The murder points to escalating pressure on communities across South Africa to accept environmentally damaging mining operations on their land.

Ntshangase, 65, was a leading member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), which is taking legal action to prevent the expansion of an open-cast coal mine at Somkhele, on the southeastern border of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game park. MCEJO also says the mine’s existing operations should be halted because they are not compliant with environmental and other laws.

The mine owners, Tendele Coal Mine, say they are operating lawfully, and expansion is necessary to keep the mine viable and protect 1,600 direct jobs and hundreds of indirect jobs in this impoverished part of the country.

View of the mine from a nearby homestead. Image by Rob Symons via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Community impacts

The Mpunkyoni tribal area is home to about 158,000 people. Villagers here make their living raising goats and cattle, and growing food for the table. Many also depend on social welfare grants and money sent by family members working in the cities. The mine and the park are the biggest employers in the area, with more than 3,000 full- and part-time workers between them.

In Divided We Dance, a 2018 short film directed by Anna Prichard, Somkhele villager Medical Ndzima talks about the many difficulties she has faced since the mine opened in 2007. “Before, this area was a good area. We had cows. We had fields. We had water — natural water from the streams. All of that is gone,” Ndzima says. Promises of infrastructure and a better life have come to naught, she says.

Villagers complain of noise and dust from the mine, and point to cracks in the walls and windows of their homes that they say are caused by regular blasting. Mongabay correspondents on visits to Somkhele over the years have observed coal dust in the air and on the plants.

“We hear of many complaints about respiratory illnesses from people living near the mine,” says Sheila Berry, of the Global Environmental Trust (GET), which helped establish MCEJO. “There is also a high infant mortality rate from respiratory-related problems, and the health of elderly people is compromised.”

Residents are also aggrieved by the handling of family graves. MCEJO’s attorney, Kirsten Youens, told Mongabay that after families were relocated for the creation of the mine, graves were dug up and the remains reburied in a cemetery without being properly identified.

“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,” says Elias Sikhosana, a Somkhele village elder from one of the 225 families who have been relocated since 2007 to make way for the mine. “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.”

Community members say family graves exhumed to make way for the mine were relocated to a cemetery without proper identification. Image courtesy Rob Symons.

Park under pressure

The mine is also affecting Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Frequent blasting rends the air and heavy machinery rumbles around the clock.

A recent report by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the government agency that manages wilderness areas in KwaZulu-Natal, says the mine’s impact on the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi has increased since it was established in 2007.

“The noise and visual intrusion (day and night) into the iMfolozi wilderness area is significant and constantly noted by Ezemvelo staff and visitors on the trail, seeking a wilderness experience,” Jenny Longmore, Ezemvelo’s senior conservation planner, writes in the report.

She raises concerns about the effect of the noise and light on game, noting it has been shown elsewhere that “human-induced noise, ground vibrations and light disturbance” can discourage a variety of wildlife species from entering certain areas. These stimuli have also been linked to increased stress among elephants and the death of crocodiles, both of which are found in the  960-square-kilometer (370-square-mile) park.

The park’s white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) population is now in decline. Longmore has flagged a section of the park nearest to the mine as a “rhino poaching ‘hot spot’ zone.” She offers a number of explanations for this, including a growing road network and traffic around the mine, which make it easier for poachers to sneak into the park.

Ezemvelo has asked the mine to fund a comprehensive study into the adverse impacts its operations have had on the park.
While the proposed northern extensions would not bring the mine closer to the park boundary, various environmental groups are quick to point out that the operation will continue to exact a toll on the quality and quality of water in the iMfolozi River that feeds iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 15 km (9 mi) downstream of the mine, on the edge of the Indian Ocean.

Tendele CEO Jan du Preez says the mine has gone to great lengths to protect water sources, while also providing water for residents in an area periodically hit by drought. He says Tendele is also engaging with Ezemvelo to set up biodiversity-offset zones.

Community engagement

The mine has also worked to address community grievances through quarterly meetings of the Mpukunyoni Community Mining Forum, Du Preez says. The forum, which includes traditional leaders from 30 tribal wards, elected councilors from the local municipality communities directly affected by the mine, mine workers, and businesses that trade with the mine.

But the mining executive says representatives of MCEJO or GET have not attended a single meeting of this forum.

“The mine is authorized by the whole community but a few people — some of them not from here, from the outside — are instigating people to fight the mine,” says M.Q. Mkhwanazi, the deputy chairman of the Mpukunyoni Traditional Council.

Du Preez also says Tendele has done much to improve the lives of many in the area, beyond the wages it pays its workers and subcontractors. This includes contracts with 70 local entrepreneurs, skills training for unemployed people, agricultural and basic infrastructure projects sponsored by the mine, educational initiatives at day care centers, primary schools, and an edu-center for high school and university students.

A boy playing near Tendele’s washing plant: the coal mine has impacted life in the community. Image by Rob Symon via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Over the past few months, tensions have risen in the community over MCEJO’s opposition to the proposed expansion of Tendele’s operations.

In 2016, Tendele was granted an additional mining right covering 222 km2 (86 mi2) in Mpukunyoni. Earlier this year, Du Preez told Mongabay that Tendele has exhausted coal deposits at its existing site at Somkhele, and unless it was able to start moving into new areas by June, the company would be forced to shut down.

He says the mine is being held to ransom by just 19 of 145 directly affected households in two communities who had refused generous offers of compensation to relocate.

Du Preez says the payouts offered to families to relocate are double, and in some cases, 10 times more than the market value of their homes.

“If you have a one-square-metre shack, you get a R200,000 [$12,300] upset allowance, and then we changed that later in the day to say that the minimum an old house can get is R400,000 [$24,600],” Du Preez says.

The amounts are confidential, but the Tendele CEO says the average payout was now 750,000 rand (nearly $46,200).

Land rights

Relocations are also complicated by communal ownership of land. As in much of Zululand and elsewhere in rural South Africa, Somkhele villagers have customary rights but not title deeds. Land is formally registered as the property of the Zulu king and managed by the Ingonyama Trust, representing 5.1 million people.This gives extensive powers to chiefs and traditional leaders, who represent the king, to negotiate with mining companies. It also means the mine’s owners are only required to compensate villagers for the value of their houses and improvements, but not for the land itself. Instead, the mining companies pay the Ingonyoma Trust yearly for leasing land. Exactly how much is never publicly disclosed.

In a report released last year, the South African Human Rights Commission says restricting compensation to physical structures on the land falls short of global industry standards and causes “systemic economic displacement and impoverishment within mining-affected communities.”

In a statement released on Oct. 23, the mining company and other stakeholders condemned Ntshangase’s murder.

In a joint  statement following Ntshangase’s murder, Tendele and other stakeholders condemned the violence and called for peace and calm.

Tendele’s business manager, Nathi Kunene, said about 50 people built rough houses in one area where the mine is set to expand after learning of impending relocations.

“These are squatter houses with no furniture. No one has ever lived in them. There is no sanitation, no water, no furniture,” Du Preez says. “They were built to try to get us to pay them compensation.” As a result, the mine has altered the original boundary of planned mine expansions.

All settlement payouts from the mine are now on ice and the mine cannot expand into new areas until all the residents required to be relocated agree to move.

Du Preez has linked Ntshangase’s murder and other recent incidents of violence and intimidation to concerns in the community about retrenchments and the threat of future job losses. He describes the situation in the area as volatile with the mine now in the process of retrenching 400 people.

“If the mine can be saved, the risk of violence will dramatically decrease,” Du Preez says.

Youens, the MCEJO attorney, counters that Tendele has incited violence by blaming impending job losses on her clients, when the mine had only itself to blame for operating without the required environmental authorizations.

“The strategies used by Tendele are sadly typical of many companies operating in impoverished rural communities,” she says. “Mines dangle incentives to impoverished community members with the inevitable consequences of stirring deep community divisions, which almost always lead to violence and deaths.”

GET spokesperson Berry says Tendele has been pushing for an “agreement” with MCEJO to withdraw its legal court challenges.

While seven members of MCEJO — including Ndzima and Sabelo Dladla, one of the lead applicants in the court cases — recently signed a memorandum of agreement to this effect, Ntshangase stood her ground.

“Nsthangase refused to sign the agreement and days before her killing stated her intention to write an affidavit about an alleged offer of a R350,000 [$21,500] bribe in return for her signature,” Berry says.

At about 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 22, four gunmen arrived at Ntshangase’s house, where she lives with her 11-year-old grandson, about 500 meters (1,640 feet) away from the site of the planned mine expansion. Police say she died at the scene of multiple gunshot wounds.

Four gunmen shot and killed anti-mining activist Fikile Ntshangase in her home on Oct. 22.

Inadequate consultation

In April this year, Tendele asked the courts to intervene and determine compensation payouts to the 19 families holding out in designated expansion areas in Ophondweni and Emlalahleni. The families’ responses to the court described a lack of consultation, coercion, intimidation, and violence linked to the company, including open letters in which Tendele blamed them for the potential loss of jobs and contracts.

The families also said that there had insufficient public consultation in awarding the additional mining right to Tendele in 2016 and failure to properly assess and mitigate environmental damage from the mine.

Tendele subsequently postponed its application and asked for mediation by an interministerial task team.

While Tendele continues to blame people refusing to relocate for delaying the mine expansion, Youens says, “The actual truth is that Tendele cannot commence site preparation or core mining activities until such time as it has obtained all necessary environmental authorizations.”

This would include, she says, an approved biodiversity offset plan, amendments to its official environmental management plan to mine in exclusion and buffer zones, a waste management license, and permits to remove protected plants and exhume and relocate graves.

“It’s imperative that we stop the mine’s expansion. It cannot ruin any more lives. Fikile [Ntshangase] was willing to die for this, and she did — simply for asserting her constitutional rights,” Youens says.

Du Preez says if MCEJO’s application succeeds, it would deal a blow to the mining industry in South Africa, and scare away investors.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park’s Longmore acknowledges the mine is a major employer in the area, but argues it has fewer full- and part-time employees than the park. Jobs at Tendele will come to an end when the mine has been depleted, whereas the park and related projects have potential for growth and are timeless in value, she says.

Cheryl Curry, chief executive of the Wilderness Leadership School, which runs the wilderness trails in the park, says she hopes the courts will recognize this and the critical role wilderness areas play in the fight against climate change, protecting biodiversity and human well-being.

“Damage being done to the environmentally sensitive iMfolozi wilderness area is direct and immediate and permanent. It is happening now,” Curry says. “We are talking about … the protected heritage of [Zulu] King Shaka’s royal hunting grounds and about a scientifically proclaimed wilderness area with all that this entails, including the vital protection of its biodiversity.”

In the meantime, GET, MCEJO, Lawyers for Human Rights and others have publicly called on Tendele to provide funds for Ntshangase’s funeral and maintenance for her orphaned grandson.

No arrests have yet been made related to any incidents of violence and intimidation detailed in court papers filed by MCEJO or for Ntshangase’s murder.

Many commentators have drawn links between the dispute over Tendele mining’s operations and the planned Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

This project too has divided the local community; in 2016, an anti-mining activist, Bazooka Radebe, was assassinated there. No arrests have been made.

But after his death, Xolobeni residents successfully applied to the Pretoria High Court for an order that their free, prior and informed consent is required before the state can award a mining license over their land.

Their lawyer, Johan Lorenzen, told Mongabay that if Tendele had complied with the Xolobeni #Right2SayNo order this would have ensured a clear agreement guiding compensation for all affected households and likely prevented the violence and intimidation in Mpukonyoni.


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

Elements of this story were earlier published on GroundUp. The story was produced for Mongabay by Roving Reporters, a journalism training agency that focuses on environmental, social and justice issues. Additional reporting by Laura du Toit, a Rhodes University journalism student enrolled in Roving Reporters’ environmental journalism training project. 

Banner image: Aerial view of Tendele mine. Image courtesy Rob Symon.

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