Fear haunts Somkhele community members

Fear haunts Somkhele community members

Fear continues to haunt the residents of Somkhele near Mtubatuba, in KwaZulu-Natal.

It’s been two weeks since four hit men gunned down environmental activist, Fikile Ntshangase, in her home in front of her grandson in Ophondweni.

She had survived an attempted hit the week before her passing.

The 65-year-old was at the forefront of a battle against the Tendele Coal Mining’s extension bid in the area.

It is suspected that she was killed for refusing to sign an agreement to drop court cases against the mine.

Ntshangase was laid to rest in KwaMaphumulo on Friday.

Her comrades say her death has left a huge void.

Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) Coordinator Philani Ndimande says community members are not at ease since Ntshangase’s murder.

“When night time falls – we are all worried because we do not know when or who might come under attack.”

Ndimande, however, says a strong police presence is comforting to them.

While they had been promised a breakthrough in the investigation soon – he says – nothing has come out of it yet.

“No one has been arrested. Now one of our community members was shot while visiting Durban recently. While we don’t know if their shooting was due to the problem we are faced with here – it is concerning.”

Mam’Ntshangase was Ndimande’s comrade, fighting together under the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, against Tendele’s plan to expand, which also requires the relocation of families from their ancestral land.

On Tuesday, the community organisation’s case alleging that Tendele’s mining operations on particular portions of land is illegal was heard in the Supreme Court of Appeal.

MCEJO accuses Tendele of having failed to obtain an environmental authorisation in terms of the National Environmental Management Act, 1998 (NEMA) for conducting certain listed activities on the site. The organisation also wants Tendele’s mining rights set aside, arguing that there was no public participation before the firm obtained a mining licence; there was no environmental authorisation and relocation agreement plan for 19 affected families.

Ndimande says the mine also exhumed the remains of some community members without a permit.

“I was really happy with how our representatives argued our case during the virtual hearing but hey – remember we are faced with a giant. So, while I am hopeful of a favourable outcome – things can go either way,” he told Local Voices.

Judgment has been reserved in the matter.

Call for justice

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has condemned Ntshangase’s murder, saying it is concerning that the human rights activists’ exercise of fundamental human rights, especially in mining communities, has always put their lives in danger.

“The Commission considers the killing of Mam’ Ntshangase as a threat to the creation and existence of a safe and enabling environment for defenders of social, land and environmental justice to freely exercise their rights. The Commission is further concerned that this matter links to larger, systemic issues in South Africa, a lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms of existing legislative frameworks by the relevant State departments, particularly the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. Closing the legislative gaps and ensuring the enforcement of legislation negates the need for the community to lobby for accountability and justice and removes conflict within communities,” it says.

The SAHRC is calling on the government to create and sustain a safe environment for the exercise of constitutional rights. It believes that justice in Mam’Ntshangase’s case will help achieve this.

Bribery claims

Before she was killed, Mam’ Ntshangase is said to have refused to sign the relocation agreement, which certain of her sub-committee members of MCEJO had purportedly signed on behalf of MCEJO.

She is also said to have stated her intention to depose to an affidavit, revealing that some members of MCEJO had spoken to her of a payment of R350 000 in exchange for her signature.

Ndimande says while divisions over the matter in the community remain, they are hopeful that fellow residents who “accepted money from Tendele” will eventually come around.

“This thing of people taking bribes was not surprising to us. You know when people are hungry they can do anything. But the sad part is money does end and once it is finished – they will see the substance of what we are fighting for. Our land and our environment. And we will always be ready to work together with them should they realise their mistake,” he says.

However, Tendele has denied bribing community members to agree to its planned expansion.

Responding to claims that it offered MCEJO members R300 000 to withdraw their cases, the mine in a response featured on the Daily Maverick says: “What is correct is that the mine has offered compensation to the 145 householders who would need to be resettled to enable the survival of the mine. These offers are based on evaluations of the structures (the land belongs to the Ingonyama Trust Board (“ITB”), although we believe the amounts offered are well in excess  of the actual value. The minimum compensation is R400 000 per householder, which includes homes plus various other considerations. The average compensation is R750 000 per householder.”

The mine says each householder will be relocating to other ITB land in the Mpukunyoni area of their choice, “at no cost for the land, having satisfied themselves on matters regarding adequacy of, for example, grazing-land quality and preferences on neighbours.”

Tendele says it has reached out to MCEJO to find solutions to outstanding issues and is ready to negotiate agreements with community members who have not yet accepted the firm’s offers.

It insists that the expansion of the mine is essential for the mine to be saved, arguing that its closure will result in the loss of income directly and indirectly for 20 000 people in an area where “unemployment is up to 90% and the mine is the only real employer.”

The KwaZulu-Natal government has been involved in efforts to find a solution to the dispute between the mine and the community.

It says it has established a task team that will continue to engage with all stakeholders in a bid to address matters of concern from the residents of kwaSomkhele.

“In the memory of Mam Ntshangase, all sectors of society should rally together to expose the perpetrators and ensure that this area does not descend to be a dangerous place for women and community members who participate in development issues,” the provincial government says.

Tendele’s Somkhele open cast coal mine has been operating since 2007 and the company received rights to extend its operations in 2016.

The mine operates in the uMkhanyakude District, which is is known for its lack of hydraulic resources and its poor delivery services of water and sanitation. Community members opposed to its expansion say it will exacerbate water scarcity in the area. They are also worried about pollution that threaten their families’ health, cattle, and farming productivity.