Xolobeni community members and environmental activists march and chant slogans in front of South Africa's Pretoria High Court, April 24, 2018. 

© 2018 Dewa Mavhinga/Human Rights Watch

This week, the Pretoria High Court has presided over a case brought by the Xolobeni community against the government that could have far reaching implications for mining communities across South Africa.

Members of the community in the Eastern Cape province asked the Pretoria High Court to rule that the South African Department of Mineral Resources cannot issue a mining license without the community’s consent. The Xolobeni community also argued that the government has to respect the rights of the people who have lived on the land for generations, even if they do not have a formal land title.

Since 2007, members of the Xolobeni community on South Africa’s Wild Coast have pushed back against the idea that the government can allow mining operations to occur in their area, without them having a say in it. They are concerned that mining would lead to displacement, destruction of the environment and their livelihoods.

As the judge listened to the legal arguments in a packed courtroom, outside, hundreds of community members and environmental activists marched and chanted slogans in support of their cause. They were joined by civil society organizations from around the country.

The presence of many environmental activists is an important testament to their commitment and courage, given the attacks some of them have faced.

Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, one of the activists from Xolobeni, was killed two years ago. No one has been identified or arrested, far less convicted for his murder, and his family says the investigation has stalled.

Nonhle Mbuthuma, one of the plaintiffs in the case and another courageous leader of the Xolobeni community, has faced harassment and death threats. She told Human Rights Watch that the community hoped for victory. “But if the High Court does not rule in our favor we will take the matter up to the Supreme Court of Appeal and, if need be, to the Constitutional Court,” she said.

A judgment from the Pretoria High Court is expected in three to four months. The South African government should ensure that all the activists involved in this case and around the country are safe and that their rights are protected.