Wild Coast titanium remains ‘unobtainium’

A scene from a video about Busisiwe Ndovela, who have birth in hiding on the Wild Coast.
A scene from a video about Busisiwe Ndovela, who have birth in hiding on the Wild Coast.

MOST URBAN dwellers on planet earth seem to regard the Pondoland Wild Coast to be as remote as the fictional planet Pandora featured in the film Avatar.

However, the escalating conflict over rights to the titanium rich Xolobeni coastal dunes speaks both metaphorically and practically to the future of South Africa. It also speaks to the future of earthlings on planet earth.

While the soothing strains of the Christmas carol “Silent Night, Holy Night” were still being sung in the final weeks of December 2015, volleys of gunfire from rapid fire weapons left local residents from the Mdatya village situated on the beautiful Pondoland Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape of South Africa terrified.  

A gang of about 10 men apparently loyal to the senior chief of the Amadiba Traditional Authority Lunga Baleni, had since 21st December 2015 conducted a reign of terror, firing weapons at the home of his “defiant” subordinate, the local Headwoman Duduzile Baleni who, in contrast to her superior, has upheld the rights of the approximately 300 families who live along the coast to decide their local destinies locally.

Their subsistence livelihood is at risk from a venture sponsored by Australian junior mining company, MRC, known as the Xolobeni Mineral Sands project.  MRC was founded and led by Perth Entrepreneur Mark Caruso. He has been impatiently waiting for 20 years to secure mining rights, via MRC’s South African subsidiary TEM (Transworld Energy Minerals), partnered with a BEE structure founded in 2003 by Caruso, Maxwell Boqwana and Zamile Qunya, known as Xolco (The Xolobeni Empowerment Company).

In opposition, the Amadiba coastal residents formed the Amadiba Crisis Committee to coordinate and ensure a disciplined and strategic response.  The ‘crisis’ that precipitated their formation has now lasted for nine long years, and is not likely to be over soon.

A week after the first warning shots were fired, a group of anti-mining residents were attacked on their way home from a public meeting that had been called to discuss the violence.  The result was three badly injured victims: Broken bones, gashes to the head and bruises.  

Four men were arrested on 31st December (Xolile Dimane, 25, Thembile Ndovela 32, Mdlele Simthandile Bhele 31 and Mto Mzukhona Bhele 32) and charged with attempted murder, assault and robbery. Xolile Dimane is an employee in another of MRC’s mining enterprises, the Tormin mineral sands project on the Cape West coast, which has also been mired in controversy.   

Fortunately, there were no fatalities, but the three direct victims of the attack were by no means the only people to suffer.  Despite the arrests, many villagers still did not feel safe in their homes at night.  At nightfall, fearing that the remaining gang members would try to intimidate (or eliminate) witnesses, they opted to leave their thatched homesteads at nightfall to shelter in ravines, under trees and in nearby woodlots.  

A grim Wild Coast nativity scene then played out under the stars.  

On New Year’s Eve, Busisiwe Ndovela, heavy with child, spent another night in the open with her mother and children, while her husband kept watch.  While drunken revellers were still cheering the birth of a New Year at the Wild Coast Sun Casino five km’s up the coast, as those festivities subsided her contractions increased.   Even if there had been enough time to get to the clinic, they were too scared to seek the help of anyone nearby with a vehicle because their owners were aligned with the mining interest and ipso facto the ‘sqebengas’ (thugs).  Her previous pregnancies had all been uncomplicated and all her older children had cried their first cries within the protective care of midwives in clinical maternity wards.  Her waters broke.  At around 03:00 she gave premature birth to a baby girl. Her head banged against a rock as her new born daughter emerged from her womb.   

While she was trying to cope with post-natal challenges, Chief Baleni, whose role under customary law is to first and foremost provide a protective peace for his subjects, was trying to secure the immediate release of the four men arrested. The police kept them in custody given the extremely serious nature of the offences. During the marathon five-day bail hearing, the Wild Coast nativity in the bush featured prominently in the prosecution’s argument against the granting of bail, illustrative of how a normally peaceful village had experienced unrest that was unheard of before – all because of the perceived benefits that mining titanium would bring.  

Fin24 was the only media platform to report on the conflict at the time. However, Ambhungane and Groundup have recently completed a further investigation and report.  

Since social workers are professionally obliged by Section 28 of the Bill of Rights to be vigilant to children needing “protection if the child lives in or is exposed to circumstances which may seriously harm a child’s physical mental or social well-being”, I made my way to visit the family.   

Her neighbours rallied alongside her as she spoke about her ordeal.  

Hoping that the extremely harmful circumstances that bedevil the physical, social and mental well-being of her child and the many other children in the Mdatya village will change, Ndovela and her husband Sibusiso have not only consented to the public release of the interview, they instructed me to do so.

Here it is:


Meanwhile, while Busisiwe laboured to give birth to her baby, on another part of the planet earth another titanium related narrative was about to have its epiphany.  At a Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toto, a luxury bathroom furniture manufacturer was setting up its stall to unveil its latest “technological breakthrough” - an "intelligent" toilet that opens when you approach it and self-cleans with every flush.  The distinctive advantage of the crapper is that the toilet bowl is coated with a Titanium/Zirconium nanotech film, which means “it only needs to be cleaned once a year.”

It’s does not come cheaply, $9 600 (R140 000) but how much of that money goes toward compensating rural communities who have had to give up their land to make way for titanium mining is not specified.  Toto does not say from whence the titanium dioxide is sourced, but if they are sincere in their global environmental vision they would surely never knowingly use conflict titanium.  http://asia.toto.com/index.php/about-us/toto-global-environment-vision,

Notwithstanding the urban convenience of having a titanium coated toilet that only needs to be flushed once a year, the moral stain on a toilet made from titanium that has displaced a rural mother forcing her to give birth under the stars, can never be erased.

I would want to believe that, if given the chance Toto would only source titanium dioxide from Xolobeni if the Amadiba community was guaranteed to have an enhanced quality of life and collective community well-being as a result of mining.  However since minerals are a non-renewable resource, mining inescapably leaves a negative environmental and social impact.  These costs are hard to quantify and seldom if ever properly internalised into a cost/benefit calculus.  As human rights attorney Richard Spoor is now teaching the gold mining companies with mounting claims against them for uncompensated damages on behalf of sick ex-mineworkers suffering from respiratory diseases, it is plainly unjust to burden the poor and future generations with the consequences of the short term, selfish, materialistic appetites that the mining industry generally tends to indulge. There are of course beneficial uses. Platinum is very close to my heart.  A platinum stent was inserted into my left ventricle 15 years ago to prolong my
life – a life I have ever since devoted to exposing the heart-breaking, negative impact that mining leaves upon the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

On 16th February, Chief Lunga Baleni warned his coastal subjects that the mining company consultants would commence a 10-day drilling programme “for water”. That was clearly a pretense. Reliable sources have told me that the company is desperate to update their now 15-year old analysis of the composition of the heavy mineral deposits and are actually needing to drill more core samples to reassure increasingly nervous shareholders that the game is worth the candle.  

The Amadiba coastal residents were ready and waiting to stop them again, but they did not show up.  The ACC have since learned that the Environmental Impact Practitioner, Peter Badenhorst, having been told in no uncertain terms during his first visit last year that he and MRC were not welcome, had refused to continue with the aggressive methods that MRC expected of him. He was fired.  MRC and Xolco are being tight lipped in response to questions by registered Interested and Affected Parties as to what they plan to do to progress their third effort to secure mining rights. Given MRC’s track record in the previous two attempts, the ACC remain on their guard.

In the lore of developmental social work there is a popular development parable that essential boils down to this: “It is good to rescue babies at peril carried down a crocodile infested river.  But it is better to go upstream to examine the circumstances that got them tossed into the river in the first place.”

The Amadiba know full well what the upstream conditions are that cause their children to be vulnerable.  It is not the fact that titanium lies in abundance beneath their ancestral home.  It is the historical track record of the mining industry which has yet to produce a single instance anywhere in the world, which unequivocally demonstrates that any rural community anywhere has collectively benefited from being uprooted and resettled to make way for a mine.  It has never happened anywhere.  It is for that reason the Amadiba coastal resident have resolved that the titanium that lies buried with their ancestors will forever remain ‘unobtanium’.  

If the Amadiba are to prevail they will need privileged urbanites and the media to support them and recognise that the fictional universe of Avatar comes home and down to earth on the Wild Coast. Their story is our story too.

* John Clarke is a registered social worker. His views do not necessarily represent those of Fin24.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Company Snapshot
Voting Booth
What potential restrictions on unvaccinated South Africans may make the biggest difference to public health, the economy?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Limited access to restaurants and bars
9% - 41 votes
Limited access to shopping centres
18% - 78 votes
Limited access to live events, including sport matches and festivals
28% - 122 votes
Workplace vaccine mandates
46% - 202 votes