South African community threatened by “worse” than Corona Virus

Published by MAC on 2020-05-08
Source: Save Our Wilderness (2020-05-07)

Keeping safe against Covid-19 is a challenge in Somkhele, where lack of
water is a serious issue, but how do you protect yourself against a hail
of bullets through your kitchen and bedroom windows after dark where
your children are in bed asleep?

On Friday, 24 April 2020, a grandmother and her family in Ophondweni
were the target of a terrifying barrage of bullets that pounded the
walls of their home and came flying through the windows. Ophondweni is
one of the villages earmarked for relocations by Tendele Coal Mining
(Pty) Ltd to make way for their open cast coal mining operations. No
injuries were reported but 19 cartridges were found at the scene.

Exactly a week before, on the evening of Friday, 17th April 2020, two
armed gunmen entered the home of Sabelo Dladla, a young leader with the
Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) that is
challenging the expansion of Tendele coal mine. The gunmen asked if he
was Sabelo. He told them he was not and that Sabelo was away. They then
tied him up and assaulted him before entering his widowed mother’s
bedroom. When they asked her and Sabelo’s young niece where Sabelo was,
they also said he was away. The gunmen then searched the house for
valuables and took mobile phones and binoculars. They also demanded
whatever money the family had. Then they left. A case of armed robbery
was opened with the KwaMsane Police Station. No arrests have been made.
Sabelo and his family have had to go into hiding. This is not the first
time Sabelo has had to flee for his life.

These violent attacks did not come without warning. It is alleged that
early in April a Mr Msweli, who has links with Ophondweni’s pro-mining
traditional leader, visited the homestead that was attacked as well as
other Ophondweni residents, and warned that shooting would take place in
Ophondweni against people resisting relocation by Tendele coal mine. The
community refuses to accept the meagre compensation the mine has paid to
Somkhele residents in the past and are refusing to make way for the
mine. Tendele has been challenged for negotiating with individual
households, resulting in improper consultations, and inadequate and
unequal compensation that leaves relocated rural farmers landless and
worse off than before. This contributes to poverty and social unrest.

Most recently, on 6 May, another person who had received a threatening
visit from Mr Msweli, received this anonymous message stating that the
attackers want the Ophondweni residents to be relocated “so that we can
go back to work as we are being retrenched from the mine. If you are
stubborn, we are going to shoot all the breadwinners we want who are
working so that we all starve. Don’t forget we know all of them and
where they are working.”

Mr Msweli indicated that the gunmen are employees of the mine who do not
want to lose their jobs and a few Ophondweni residents hoping to be
employed by the mine when it expands. So, the conflict in Somkhele is no
longer about jobs versus livelihoods but has escalated to jobs versus
lives. This mindset has been fomented by the government’s obsession with
coal mining and mining jobs regardless of the devastating consequences
left in the wake of this polluting industry rapidly headed for

Global Environment Trust (GET) trustee, Sifiso Dladla, who has been
working with the Somkhele community and the mining sector since 2011,
observes: “Not only does mining rip the earth apart but it also rips
communities apart. Not only do these acts of violence and armed
break-ins rob people of belongings and their sense of safety and
security but they leave behind traumatic memories, deep-seated fears and
long-lasting scars.”

All these attacks, threats and intimidation have been reported to the
relevant regional Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) officials who do
not respond. It has landed with Mary de Haas, the Violence Monitor for
KwaZulu Natal (KZN), to intervene. Early in April she wrote to the
KwaMsane and Mtubatuba South African Police Service alerting them to the
likelihood of violence in Ophondweni and asking for regular patrols.
Again, after the shooting in Ophondweni, she phoned the police. There
appears to be little interest on the part of the police to protect
citizens whose lives are on the line. For their part, Ophondweni
residents do not trust the police and see little point in reporting
threats and attacks to the police. No arrests of the perpetrators have
been made and the intimidation and violence directed towards Somkhele
residents is allowed to continue.

Conflict between the residents of Somkhele and the mine dates back to
2004, with the first wave of relocations taking place around this time.
When Tendele took over the mine, in 2007, tensions intensified and a
renewed wave of social unrest ensued, especially with the granting of
the amended 222km2 mining right in 2016 by the DMR, giving way to the
expansion of mining operations in Somkhele. The mine is relentlessly
consuming land that supported hundreds of rural farmers as well as areas
of high biodiversity bordering the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park (HiP).

Members of MCEJO, particularly those within the contested 222km2 mining
lease area, have good reason to fear for their lives. MCEJO currently
has two court cases against Tendele Coal mine, the Minister of Mineral
and Energy and nine others – one in the Supreme Court of Appeal and
another in the North Gauteng High Court.

The current national lock-down makes these activist communities easy
targets. Not only are their lives at constant risk but the national
lockdown significantly brings their vulnerability into sharp focus. The
process of trying to get Sabelo Dladla and his family into hiding in
order to protect their lives was particularly difficult with no active
transport system operating and the lockdown restrictions on movement.

Despite all these challenges, MCEJO members are resolved to stand firm
in their support for those who are being targeted and are particularly
vulnerable at this time. We will continue to call on the government and
its agencies, in particular the police and the Department of Mineral
Resources, to execute their duties to protect citizens of this country.
The same attention and concern that is being focussed on containing
Covid-19 must be given to other threats to human life.


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