Villagers fight to keep their red dunes

Untouched: The 67-year-old Mablasi Yalo and her four-year-old granddaughter Azola walk along the red dunes in Xolobeni near Mbizana, Eastern Cape.
Untouched: The 67-year-old Mablasi Yalo and her four-year-old granddaughter Azola walk along the red dunes in Xolobeni near Mbizana, Eastern Cape.

Mablasi Yalo (67) was born and bred in Xolobeni on the outskirts of Mbizana, a rural town on the border of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

Yalo is one of hundreds of Xolobeni residents opposed to proposed titanium mining by the Australian-based Richtersveld Mining Company (RMC).

City Press found Yalo walking over the hills of the red dunes, the source of a conflict within Xolobeni that has not only divided residents but pitted brother against brother.

Yalo is a widow with seven children and three grandchildren. She had gone to the mealie fields on Thursday morning to fetch maize meal on the other side of the red dunes, accompanied by granddaughter Azola (4).

As she walked across what looked like a red desert, carrying a 20-litre bucket full of mealie meal on her head, she stopped for a chat, curious about our presence in this beautiful, highly contentious and protected piece of land on the banks of Kwanyana Beach.

She wanted to get her maize meal early, as it would be too late to do so after the meeting.

Later, Yalo and about 1 000 other villagers gathered at the uMgungundlovu Great Place on Thursday to discuss the latest flare-up in the Xolobeni mining conflict.

Violence had erupted between the pro- and anti-mining groups, led by the crisis committee, the previous Sunday.

“This land belongs to our forefathers. It’s our ancestral land and no one can just come here and do as they please. We don’t want any mining to take place here. We eat from our land because we plough crops here. We might be poor, but we are not stupid. They will have to kill all of us first before they can take this land,” said Yalo.

At the meeting, held in an open field next to a community hall that was too small to accommodate the high turnout, emotions ran high.

The meeting was attended mostly by those opposed to mining. Proceedings started with a prayer. The men were ordered to remove their hats, as per tradition.

On the right, men carrying knobkerries were seated on benches while women sat on the ground to the left.

At a small table were the leaders of the crisis committee, the fiercest critics of the proposed mine, along with Xolobeni regent Duduzile Baleni and lawyer for the crisis committee Michael Tsele.

The meeting started with Nonhle Mbuthuma, deputy chairperson of the crisis committee, questioning why police were not present at the meeting to ensure peace and security. She accused the police of playing games and being on the side of the pro-mining group.

Mbuthuma said the situation at Xolobeni had reached boiling point and she made a call for President Jacob Zuma to intervene.

“We are saying to President Zuma that this is getting out of hand. We can see that even the police are against us. So we are calling on the president to intervene to avoid another Marikana, because we are prepared to die for our land. No mining is going to take place as long as we live,” she said.

Police at the Mpisi Police Station have also been accused of refusing to open a case after an elderly man brought them a bullet cartridge from the scene where a shooting took place last Sunday.

This was after a nine-car convoy carrying pro-mining supporters and environmental assessors trying to make their way to the proposed site of the mine through Xolobeni was stopped in its tracks.

Villagers had got wind of the delegation and blocked the road with rocks and wood.

Violence erupted between the anti-mining and pro-mining villagers, with the latter allegedly accompanied by police who shot in the direction of those who had blocked the road.

Masandilose Ndovela (62) claimed she was beaten on the head with the butt of a pistol – repeatedly.

“I was also hit with a bush knife and kicked. I was confused and scared. I thought I was going to die,” she explained.

Ndovela, who has fresh stitches on her left arm, was recently released from hospital.

Despite the police refusing to open a case against a pro-mining group who allegedly carried guns and shot at anti-mining villagers, four of the people who blocked the road were arrested for allegedly damaging a vehicle.

City Press has seen two letters, sent to both the Mzamba and Mpisi police stations, dated April 30 2015. These letters have been stamped by police at these stations, which serves as an acknowledgment of receipt.

The letters, which were written by Duduzile Baleni, request a police presence at the uMgungundlovu Great Place to ensure peace.

It also emerged that police had called for a meeting of stakeholders – on the same day as the uMgungundlovu imbizo. This move was interpreted as an attempt to further divide the community.

The Mpisi Police Station manager could not be reached for comment.

As tempers flared at the meeting, with talks of “revenge” and “blood being spilt”, it also emerged that the village chief, Lunga Baleni, had “sold the villagers out” and was now working with the mining company.

The chief and his wife, Xolokazi, are alleged to be directors of the Xolobeni Empowerment Company (Xolco), which is believed to be in business with the Richtersveld Mining Company.

Xolco is listed with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission and the couple – along with several others – are listed as active directors.

However, the chief denied that he was a director in the company.

“They are dragging my name through the mud. I have nothing to do with the mining company or Xolco. All I want is development.

“If people don’t want mining, they must be persuaded. I am against a bloodbath,” he said.

Richard Mthwa (50), also born and bred in Xolobeni, said he, too, was prepared to die for the land of his forefathers and would not allow mining to take place.

He accused Xolobeni Junior Secondary teachers of being co-opted by the mining group.

“Our children at school are taught to love this mining thing. They are fed all sorts of lies.

“We’re being pitted against our own kids. These teachers must stay away from politics and teach our children – that’s what they are paid to do,” he said at the meeting to wild applause.

Nokwamkela Mteki, a ward councillor at Xolobeni, said perhaps people would have considered endorsing mining had the mining company promised developments, such as hotels and shopping malls.

She said a lack of consultation was the primary reason for the impasse.

“I am a ward councillor here, yet no one has consulted me about the mining prospects or anything. As such, I’m fully behind those who oppose the mining in Xolobeni,” she added.

Meanwhile, her predecessor, Ntethelelo Madikizela, a pro-mining activist and one of the people accused of shooting at the anti-mining group, is adamant that mining will go ahead.

According to Madikizela, he did not attack the group. He added that he believed he was being hijacked and had tried to defend himself.

“We had just attended a meeting when I saw that the road was blocked by large rocks around 8pm on Sunday. I drove over the rocks.

“They said they had been sent by the community to block the road. They were armed with machetes,” he added.

However, Madikizela, who said his car was stoned during the ruckus, eventually admitted that he did have his gun with him.

Madikizela said he wanted mining to start in Xolobeni, as the project would result in huge infrastructure development, such as the construction of roads, ensuring water supply and electricity and that schools and clinics would be built.

He said the mining initiative would result in job opportunities, starting with the building phase – even before the mine became active.

“This project will bring plenty of opportunities in this place and help us fight poverty … what is even worse is that most of the people who are opposed to mining are not even from Xolobeni – they are from faraway places.

“Nonhle [Mbuthuma] and John Clarke are not from Xolobeni; they have no business sticking their noses into our things,” he added.

Clarke is an anti-mining activist who has been involved in the Xolobeni matter for years.

Madikizela added: “We, the people of Xolobeni, are determined to bring mining to this area, and are also prepared to die to realise that dream. We are not scared of their intimidation.”

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