Environmentalists mourn death of a colleague, call for justice

Environmentalists mourn death of a colleague, call for justice

Shock, anger and fear have followed the killing of Mfolozi environmental activist, Fikile Ntshangase.

Ntshangase was gunned down in front of her 11-year-old grandson on Thursday night in her home at Ophondweni, near Mtubatuba.

Initial reports say four men forced their way into the home and shot her five times. She passed away on the scene. 

Environmental rights groups say they are devastated by the murder and are calling on the police to act swiftly and bring her murderers to account.

“We mourn the senseless tragedy of Mama Ntshangase’s murder, and condemn her killing.”  

Ntshangashe was the Vice-Chairperson of a sub-committee of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO). MCEJO has been challenging the further expansion of a large coal mine at Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal by Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd. 

One of the court cases brought by MCEJO is scheduled for hearing in the Supreme Court of Appeal on 3 November. Environmental rights activists say tensions have been simmering over the matter in the area for months now.   

Tendele was allegedly pushing for MCEJO to withdraw its court challenges against the planned expansion. Ntshangase refused to sign the agreement, which some of her fellow colleagues signed.

 “I refused to sign. I cannot sell out my people. And if need be, I will die for my people,” a defiant Ntshangase said.     

She warned sub-committee members that they had no power to make decisions on behalf of MJECO and that the agreement only benefited Tendele. She is said to have also refused to attend any of the secret meetings that other sub-committee members held with Tendele. 

“Days before her brutal killing, Mama Ntshangase stated her intention to write an affidavit, revealing that sub-committee members had spoken to her of a payment of R350 000 in return for her signature,” says a joint statement of rights organisations, including the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation; Global Environmental Trust, Women Against Mining United in Action and the Mining Affected Communities United In action. 

The environmental rights activists add that: “The court challenge that placed a price on Mama Ntshangase’s life is MJECO’s pending review application of Tendele’s new mining right in respect of a 222km2 area in Mpukunyoni, KZN. This review is due to be heard by the North Gauteng High Court in March 2021.”  

Tendele has allegedly publicly described MCEJO’s legal challenge against its expansion as a threat to the mine’s continued existence. The firm’s plan requires the relocation of 21 families (19 of them MJECO members) from their ancestral land. It is alleged to have also tried forcing their hand through intimidation and death threats.

“On 15 October, two sub-committee members, accompanied by two known hitmen, tried to disrupt a MCEJO executive committee meeting with community leaders, which included Mama Ntshangase. One sub-committee member tried to lock the doors, and a prominent leader was assaulted. A criminal case is being opened. This leader, who works in another area, has been warned that his life will be in danger if he is seen in the vicinity,” they say.

Environmental activists also accuse Tendele of trying to get the State, the Ingonyama Trust Board, traditional leaders and fellow community members to pressure affected families into signing relocation agreements.  They say the mine appears to have the support of the provincial government.

“In July, the Department of Community Safety and Liaison sent a staff member, apparently from its Civilian Secretariat arm (which is conspicuous in its absence whenever the threat of violence looms), to persuade community members to negotiate with the mine.,” the organisations allege.

The activists say Tendele’s coal mining operations have caused untold destruction of the environment and the homes and livelihoods of the residents of Somkhele. 

Local Voices is chasing comment from Tendele and the KwaZulu-Natal government.