Xolobeni and the irony of history

Residents of mining communities picketed outside the Pretoria High Court in April in support of the Right To Say No to Mining Campaign. (Zoë Postman, GroundUp)
Residents of mining communities picketed outside the Pretoria High Court in April in support of the Right To Say No to Mining Campaign. (Zoë Postman, GroundUp)

It seems that Gwede Mantashe is not paying sufficient attention to the core principles of constitutional democracy that puts citizens at the centre of shaping their futures, writes Mamphela Ramphele.

The Amadiba people of Xolobeni are going though a nightmare of seeing their heritage being threatened by the extractive clutches of an Australian mining company, MCR. 

Their struggle to protect their heritage is one that all citizens should support to protect our collective heritage and ecosystems.

The Constitutional Court on the 28 October 2018 introduced their judgment in favour of the first applicant, Maledu, on behalf of the Bakgatla-Ba-Kgafela by quoting Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth: "For a colonised people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all dignity."

READ: Why Xolobeni's win against a mining company matters

The Xolobeni community successfully defended themselves against an apartheid government that wanted to impose a "Betterment Program" under the then Bantustan system. The development model being imposed on them again in the name of job creation, is at variance with the rich traditions and customs that have enabled the Amadiba to live in harmony with nature over many generations. 

Minister Gwede Mantashe seems prepared to side-step a high court judgment that reaffirmed the rights of the Amadiba over their land on the basis that he suspects that "within the next ten years the right to issue licenses is systematically shifting from government to communities, and if we do that there will be no mining."

Was the struggle for freedom not to promote decision making by communities such as the Xolobeni community? It seems that Minister Mantashe is not paying sufficient attention to the core principles of constitutional democracy that puts citizens at the centre of shaping their futures with government officials as the servants of the people, not their masters.

The minister also seems to be interpreting the mandate of his department too narrowly in his eagerness to do his job.  The mandate of the Department of Mineral Resources according to its own website is, "To promote and regulate the minerals and mining for transformation, growth, development and to ensure that all South Africans benefit from the country's mineral wealth."

One would have thought that Mantashe as a former migrant worker in the industry, leader of National Union of Mine Workers, former chair of the SACP, former ANC secretary general, and now chair of the ANC that styles itself as the leader of society, would demonstrate greater empathy for courageous communities such as the Amadiba, instead of resenting their determination to assert their rights.

The Xolobeni community is sadly not alone in being betrayed by post-apartheid political leaders. Advocate Thuli Madonsela, the former public protector, produced a report in 2016 on the missing funds (estimated to be R610m), from an Escrow D-Account, belonging to the Bapo Ba Mogale community in North West.  Both the provincial and national government officials were implicated in turning a blind eye to the neglect of good governance that led to misuse of these resources. There is yet to be redress for this betrayal.

An estimated 18-20 million rural people are vulnerable to abuse of power by traditional leaders and local, provincial and national government officials who undermine their traditional land ownership recognised under Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act (IPILRA) of 1996. The cruel irony is that the very ANC government that enacted IPILRA, is undermining it. In the last few weeks several court judgments have come to the aid of betrayed communities, including the Ngonyama Trust in KZN. 

These cases make a mockery of the pronouncements of the ANC that it is determined to restore land to its real owners. Amending Section 25 of the Constitution to effect land restitution without compensation is a distraction from the core problem – the lack of political will by the ANC government to implement land reform efficiently. Impunity in corruption and criminal neglect of rural communities by public officials in all provinces is a crying shame. 

Minister Mantashe's legitimate concern about creating jobs through promoting new mining opportunities is misplaced. The titanium mine in Xolobeni would only be viable for 17 years, at the expense of permanent destruction of the irreplaceable beautiful Wild Coast Dunes. The impact of such destruction in the face of the reality of global warming would lead to rising sea levels, could prove catastrophic for poor coastal communities. 

Alternative development models supporting organic carbon-based agriculture indigenous to this community would be more appropriate. Investments by government in building proper infrastructure including roads, water and sanitation systems, basic education and health service facilities would create sustainable jobs and secure livelihoods in perpetuity. Ecotourism, livestock farming and food production would make for a thriving ecologically sound environment.

In addition, enforcing social and labour plans as well as land rehabilitation by mining companies could create thousands of jobs young people on the Witwatersrand to address the ecological disasters that are looming.

Acid mine drainage is hollowing out the underbelly of Johannesburg, whilst mine dunes dotting the landscapes are undermining the health of thousands of poor communities living on the periphery of Johannesburg city. Successive governments have neglected their regulatory responsibilities to date.

Our government is a signatory to the UN Intergovernmental Climate Change Agreement in Paris in 2015. We are obligated to meet our commitments to contribute to ecosystems sustainability and to enhance harmony with nature.  The Wild Coast is one of the treasures of our natural heritage in Africa.

The ultimate irony is that the Australian mining company, MCR, that is putting pressure on the Xolobeni community to allow it to destroy their ecosystem, has already done damage to the Matzikama local municipality in the Western Cape where it breached its legal boundaries leading to collapse of a 17meter cliff! Our regulators have yet to hold MCR accountable.

In a landmark case in February 2019 in Australia, the chief judge, Brian Preston of the NSW Land and Environment Court, refused to approve a new coal mine because of its impact on climate change saying, "the mine proposal was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Minister Mantashe should accept that the proposal to mine the Xolobeni Wild Coast Dunes is in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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