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Environmentalists Under Threat in South Africa

Published in: BusinessDay
Activists from mining communities protesting at the Pietermaritzburg High Court on August 24, 2018, KwaZulu-Natal. © 2018 Rob Symons

Environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase was killed after her refusal to withdraw legal challenges to existing and future mining operations.

While shocking, the killing of environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase is not surprising. Environmental defenders such as Ntshangase have long faced threats for voicing their concerns about mining activity on nearby communities.

When, in 2018, I visited Somkhele, a town near a coal mine in KwaZulu-Natal, several community activists told me they had been threatened, physically attacked and their property damaged after speaking out about the health risks of coal mining. Two years later, on October 22, Ntshangase was gunned down in her home. No arrests have been made.

Ntshangase was a vice-chair of a subcommittee of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), a community-based organisation formed to speak up for people affected by opencast mining. The group has brought legal challenges against a planned expansion of the nearby coal mine. Community members have publicly expressed concern about how the mine affects their health and livelihoods, and 19 families have resisted being displaced from their ancestral land for the mine expansion.

SA groups have raised concerns that Ntshangase’s killing may have been related to her outspoken advocacy and refusal to withdraw the legal challenges to existing and future mining operations. Tendele Coal Mining, the company operating Somkhele coal mine, told us in 2019 that they were “aware of claims of attacks, yet upon investigation and consultation with police, the information could not be verified/substantiated”.

Last week, Tendele condemned what it called a “senseless killing” and called for a prompt investigation, in a joint statement with local leaders. 

SA is the world’s seventh-largest coal producer. The absence of effective government oversight has allowed mining to harm the rights of communities across the country in various ways. It has depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil and water, destroyed arable land and ecosystems, and often resulted in displacement and inappropriate grave relocation practices.

In a scathing report, the SA Human Rights Commission found that “the mining sector is riddled with challenges related to land, housing, water, [and] the environment.”

People living in communities affected by mining activities across SA have mobilised to press the government and companies to respect and protect community members’ rights from the potentially serious environmental, social, economic, and health-related harm of mining. In many cases, such activism has been met with harassment, intimidation, or violence.

In our 2019 report, published jointly with groundWork, the Centre for Environmental Rights, and Earthjustice, we documented how activists in mining-affected communities across the country have experienced threats, physical attacks or property damage that they believe is a consequence of their activism. Most of these cases had not been investigated by police, and the investigations into the killings or attacks we documented are moving very slowly. 

One high-profile case is the killing of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe at his home in Xolobeni, Eastern Cape, in March 2016. He and other community members had raised concerns about displacement and destruction of the environment from a titanium mine proposed by the Australian company Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources. No suspects have been arrested in his killing.

We also found that government officials or companies sometimes deliberately created or exploited community divisions or closed their eyes to intimidation and abuse between community members, to isolate or weaken critics. Tendele has sought to brand community members opposing its operations as anti-development or acting against the community interest, putting them at further risk of being attacked or threatened by those benefiting from the mine.

In March 2018, a community member from Somkhele told me: “The mine is not directly threatening people, but they will [intimidate] their employees by telling them that they will lose their jobs if the activism continues.” Earlier that year, the company’s management had circulated a memorandum to employees warning of layoffs, blaming “a few community members [who] … choose to stand in the way of future development and huge economic and social investment and upliftment in the community.”

In a statement issued four days after Ntshangase’s killing, Tendele, along with local leaders, called for an investigation of the killing and cited concerns about the closure of the mine as a result of the pending court cases and resistance to relocations.

The SA police should ensure a prompt, effective, impartial investigation into Ntshangase’s killing and ensure that those found responsible are brought to justice. Failure to do so, or failure to thoroughly examine the extent to which her environmental activism was a factor in her targeting, will exacerbate the climate of impunity that has perpetuated violence and intimidation against activists.

They should not have to endure threats and danger to their very lives for defending their right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live on their ancestral land.

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