Tension is rising among the Xolobeni community in the wake of a protracted legal wrangle over a proposed mining bid as support for those opposed to the project grows
Mancana Jula and her neighbour, Mathumbo Mafazane, are seated alongside a dirt road that snakes its way past their village of Mngungu, fashioning out brooms from the stem of the isundu (wild date palm) tree.
The tree, which grows in abundance in this picturesque area of the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape, is considered a sacred and integral part of life in this area. It has many uses, including for medicinal purposes, making fish traps and traditional skirts worn during initiation. The fruit is also used to brew wine.
It is one of many indigenous plants that Jula, Mafazane and scores of residents rely on for their daily sustenance and medicinal use, just like their ancestors have for generations.
They also rely on the land to grow their own food and sell surplus potatoes and amadumbe to the produce market in Durban and to businesses.
But residents like Jula and Mafazane now live with the constant fear that the isundu will one day disappear from their land.
They also worry that their pristine land will one day become infested with the roar of trucks, earth-moving machines and dust if they lose the protracted court case against efforts to mine titanium in the area.
A fortnight ago, on Human Rights Day (March 21), the community gathered in Sgidi, one of the villages under threat from the proposed mining, to commemorate Siphesihle “Bazooka” Rhadebe and to also plan a way forward in their struggle.
Rhadebe, an anti-mining activist, was gunned down by unknown gunmen in 2016.
He is one of a reported 12 people, all of whom were active against efforts to mine in the area, who were killed.
Some, like Scorpion Ndimane, were allegedly poisoned while attending ceremonies in their villages.
The dispute has turned families and relatives against one another for their pro- and anti-mining support.
And, with the growing opposition against mining, the voices of those in support appear muted.
The proposed Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project is an initiative by Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources (TEM), a subsidiary of Australian corporation Mineral Commodities.
It is earmarked to be one of the largest titanium mines in South Africa.
The mining activity is planned to be conducted in an area 22km long and 1.5km wide, covering 2 867 hectares estimated to contain 139 million tons of titanium-bearing minerals, including ilmenite, zircon, leucoxene and rutile, mainly used in pigment manufacture.
In November, the Pretoria High Court heard that TEM intended to conduct open-cast mining activities on 900 hectares of land within the mining area, and that the mode of excavation would require the establishment of a number of plants and operations, including wet separation plants and the accompanying slime dams and tailing dams.
The rest of the area would be taken up by power lines, access roads, offices, stores and accommodation for a number of employees.
The community, organised under the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), is now preparing for the next leg of the struggle as they await a high court date for a decision on whether the department of mineral resources will be granted leave to appeal the November high court judgment, which ruled that the community had the right to say no to mining.
The ACC is opposing the mining activity on the grounds that it will destroy the natural water sources which sustain the people, it will interfere with the agrarian economy of the area and will also lead to the displacement of families.
As part of her high court ruling, Judge Annali Basson said Minister of Mineral Resources Gwede Mantashe would have to obtain full and formal consent from the Xolobeni community prior to being able to grant mining rights.
Mantashe announced that he would appeal the ruling and indicated that the department would conduct a survey in the community to gauge whether they were interested in government granting mining rights or not.
He said the department would take a firm decision on the basis of the outcomes of the survey.
“If the community says no, there will be no mining. If the community says yes, mining will proceed,” said Mantashe.
He said if mining went ahead in Xolobeni, it would have to be sustainable and coexist with tourism, agriculture and other economic development initiatives.
But the ACC-led community is against the proposal.
“Mantashe will not conduct his survey. He won’t do it. You can only survey people who say they want mining,” said ACC leader Nonhle Mbuthuma during the March 31 gathering, attended by more than 2 000 people.
“How can you survey people who have already said they don’t want mining?” she asked.
Frail elders and vociferous youths packed the grounds of the Sgidi primary school, singing songs in defiance of the proposed mining.
Mbuthuma summed up the general feeling of despair among elderly residents like Bawinile Mchebi who live with the daily burden of uncertainty about their land.
“Among us there are elders who are with us physically, but spiritually they are already under the earth,” said Mbuthuma.
“They are worried about what is going to happen to the land.”
Mchebi’s father, Samson Gampe, a legendary figure in Sgidi and a veteran of the Pondoland uprising of 1960, died from what the family said was a broken heart earlyin 2017.
According to the SA History Online website, the Pondo people opposed the implementation of the land reclamation programme, which was to have a serious social and structural impact on their way of life in that their lands would now be divided up and presided over by chiefs and magistrates chosen by the apartheid government.
Scores of people were massacred, and others arrested and executed, when government reacted to the revolt by declaring a state of emergency.
Gampe survived the onslaught and when the mining crisis started in the early 2000s, he joined this new struggle to protect his land.
Now his daughter is left to continue the battle.
Every morning she looks across her fields of maize and potatoes, and wonders if it will be her last harvest and what will become of her and her family afterwards.
“My father said he would fight on, even though he was very old. He said he had fought for the land against the Boers in 1960 and that he was fighting now against this mining,” she said.
“We will not give up. I will not betray my father now and say I want mining.
“People fought for the land and I will fight too against this mining,” she said.
– Mukurukuru Media
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