A privately owned isiZulu-language newspaper that used to call itself the official voice of the Zulu monarch has launched a dangerous war of words against critics of the king and those who seek to mine the land he claims as his own.
The newspaper, Bayede, published a story in April by journalist Mandla Zulu about land activist Mbhekiseni Mavuso of Makhasaneni near Melmoth.
The article quoted members of the Ntembeni royal family, Mawolintshi and Sipho Zulu, as saying that Mr Mavuso was a traitor working with Boers to dispossess people of their land. The journalist who wrote the story is a relative of Sipho Zulu and both are directly engaged in supporting mining operations that have already caused damage to people’s land and which would ultimately require the removal and relocation of people from their fields.
The newspaper said Mr Mavuso had been seen “walking with white people” and that he stayed in hotels when he travelled to further his opposition to the king.
Mandla Zulu has written a string of stories that imply that the local traditional leader, Thandazani Zulu, should be deposed and replaced by another member of the Zulu royal family, of whom Sipho Zulu is one.
Bayede describes itself on its website (www.bayedenews.com) as a “weekly isiNguni publication targeting a niche market, interested in a critical approach to policy formulation and implementation, politics, cultural heritage, current affairs, and rural and economic development”. It targets people living in rural KwaZulu-Natal, but it is also available in the big cities.
Until recently, however, the official rate card used to attract advertisers said: “Bayede is the official monthly Royal publication that covers news that is of specific relevance to the Monarch and the institution of ubukhosi. It champions the interests of its readers while serving as a platform for the Monarch’s messages to the nation.”
Bayede’s sustained misrepresentation of committed local activists could have severe and material consequences for people’s lives. But because the newspaper is not affiliated to the South African Press Council and does not adhere to the South African Press Code, it is not subject to the oversight of the Press Ombudsman.
Since 2011, Mr Mavuso together with other members of Makhasaneni community have been resisting the unannounced activities of a mining company, Jindal Africa (Pty) Ltd. Jindal arrived in Makhasaneni and began prospecting in people’s fields without consulting the community or the people who depended on the produce grown on the fields destroyed in the process.
Jindal sought to establish whether the area has sufficiently high levels of iron ore to justify mining. After the prospecting began, a number of cattle and goats died from poisoned water. Ancient family graves were damaged, crop fields were destroyed and water streams became poisonous and ultimately ran dry.
Villagers have managed to stop Jindal by raising their concerns with the company and the traditional leader. The prospecting is currently on hold. But while the destruction has been paused, there have been incidents of intimidation by the Zulu brothers of the members of the Makhasaneni community.
The apparently deliberate misrepresentation of Mr Mavuso’s work in Bayede led sympathetic callers to warn in a series of phone calls that he should disappear from the area for a while, as there were threats to kill him.
Law firm Webber Wentzel, acting on behalf of Mr Mavuso, wrote to Bayede demanding that they apologise to him for defaming his character, but the newspaper failed to respond. Instead, in their 7-14 May 2015 issue, Bayede published another article by Mandla Zulu, in which he made it clear that Bayede was not going to withdraw what it had published about Mr Mavuso because it was quoting “reliable” sources.
In fact, Mandla Zulu reiterated the same allegations against Mr Mavuso, further defaming his character and putting him in a vulnerable position. A week later, in yet another article, Mr Zulu accused Mr Mavuso of going door-to-door influencing the community of Makhasaneni against Jindal and mining in the area. In this issue of Bayede, dated 21-28 May 2015, he wrote that Mr Mavuso was bitter because he had lost his job at Sungu-Sungu a sister company to Jindal and therefore was no longer getting incentives. Bayede did not ask Mr Mavuso to share his side of the story before publishing the libellous article.
The Centre for Law and Society has been aware of the struggles of the community of Makhasaneni to protect their land rights since November, when the centre participated in a workshop at which people’s rights to land were explained and the need for consultation and consent was stressed.
The land on which the affected communities live falls under the Ingonyama Trust. The Ingonyama Trust Act recognises pre-existing customary rights to land, which are also protected by the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act. According to the law ordinary people cannot be deprived of their land without their consent, except by expropriation.
Bayede reported on that workshop saying that CLS was openly part of a consortium that aimed to discredit King Goodwill Zwelithini and the Ingonyama Trust. In that report in June, journalist Nhlanhla Mtaka claimed that CLS senior researcher Dr Mbongiseni Buthelezi did not hide that CLS had called a meeting in Pietermaritzburg to discuss how to stop the attempts of the King and Ingonyama Trust to expand the Zulu Kingdom.
That was a misrepresentation of facts. Dr Buthelezi wrote a response to Bayede in which he clarified that the role of CLS was to support communities in the former homelands in protecting their land rights, and emphasised that the core issue at hand was about rights, consultation and who owns the land.
Bayede did not publish Dr Buthelezi’s response. Instead, the editor Nhlanhla Mtaka wrote an article about the exploitation of rural people, implying that the culprits are mining companies and traditional leaders rather than the Ingonyama Trust, which signs rental agreements with mining companies. In this issue of Bayede, dated 25 June-2 July 2015, Mr Mtaka quoted various community members expressing their concerns about mining in their areas. These concerns are similar to those of the people of Makhasaneni, whom Bayede has targeted.
A central point of contention concerns the circumstances under which the Ingonyama Trust enters into surface leases with mining companies, and the steps it takes to ensure that the people whose land rights are affected are consulted and give their consent. The Chair of the Trust, former judge Jerome Ngwenya, is on record as saying he needs to consult only traditional councils, not ordinary people. CLS has a very different interpretation of the law.
Bayede insists it is not linked to the Ingonyama Trust. Yet recently – possibly in response to Dr Buthelezi’s letter – the Trust and Bayede jointly convened an engagement with rural people to discuss their concerns about mining on communal land. At the meeting at Esikhawini College on the 15th of July 2015 people told very similar stories to the one that is unfolding in Makhasaneni. Mr Ngwenya addressed the meeting. He and others distanced themselves from responsibility for the serious problems faced by ordinary people. But he failed to clarify the process in terms of which the Ingonyama Trust signs surface leases with mining companies.
It seems the levels of community dissatisfaction are now too high to ignore. And blame for what is happening is being diverted away from the Trust to traditional leaders. Those brave enough to resist mining continue, however, to be targeted by Bayede, which continues to deny its links with the Trust.
Please listen to people’s complaints and Mr Ngwenya’s responses as they were broadcast on Ukhozi FM
or read the translated transcript of the meeting here.