Dear Honourable Minister Cele,
On behalf of Human Rights Watch, an independent organization that monitors and reports on human rights globally in more than 90 countries, we write to urge the South Africa Department of Police to conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into the recent killing of environmental activist Mama Fikile Ntshangase.
Ntshangase was shot dead in her house on the evening of Thursday, October 22, in her home west of Mtubatuba in KwaZulu-Natal province, near Somkhele coal mine. No arrests have been made. The Tendele Coal Mining Ltd., which owns and operates Somkhele mine, as part of a joint statement on October 23, condemned what it called a “senseless killing” and called for an investigation.
Ntshangase was a Vice-Chair of a subcommittee of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organization, a community-based organization that has legally challenged a planned expansion of the coal mine. Community members have publicly denounced the impacts of the coal mine on their health and livelihoods and 19 families resist being displaced from their ancestral land to make way for the mine expansion. More than a dozen South African NGOs have raised concerns that Ntshangase’s killing may have been related to the fact that she was vocal in her concerns about the operations of the Somkhele coal mine and that she was unwilling to sign an agreement to withdraw the current court cases challenging existing and future mining operations.
We believe these concerns are justified given the history of threats and attacks on community rights defenders like Ntshangase in South Africa. In a joint report we published in April 2019 entitled “‘We know our lives are in danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities,” one of our key findings was that community rights defenders in mining-affected communities across the country have experienced threats, physical attacks, and/or damage to their property that they believe is a consequence of their activism – and most of these cases had not been investigated by police. Specifically, our research found that several community activists voicing concerns about the impacts of the Somkhele coal mine had experienced threats, physical attacks, and damage to their property that they believed were in response to their opposition to the coal mine. In Annex A, we included a letter dated March 21, 2019, that we sent to your department detailing our full report findings and the recommendations specific to your department.
We are concerned that Mama Fikile Ntshangase’s killing exacerbates the environment of fear, which we documented in our 2019 report, and is likely to deter other community members from speaking out about the risks of mining.
In line with the government’s obligation under both international law and South African law to respect, protect, promote, and fulfil the rights to life, security, freedoms of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and the rights to health and a healthy environment, we are urging you to:
- Conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into Mama Fikile Ntshangase’s killing that includes an effective examination of the possibility that her killing was related to her environmental activism;
- Ensure that those found to be responsible for the killing are brought to justice;
- Share regular updates on the investigation with the family of the deceased and inform the public about the progress of the investigation; and
- Increase protection including by establishing a community police forum to deter attacks on community members.
We would be happy to arrange a video conference to provide further information regarding our letter and relevant findings from our 2019 report. We look forward to your substantive response to our letter.
Executive Director, Africa Division
Human Rights Watch
 Human Rights Watch report, “‘We know our lives are in danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities,” (April, 2019), p. 33, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/southafrica0419_web.pdf.