Ululation, songs and slogans set the tone at Makhasaneni near Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal on Sunday when scores of community members gathered to celebrate the decision by Indian company Jindal Africa to shelve an application to mine their land.
Farmers, herders and friends from as far away as Xolobeni on the Eastern Cape Wild Coast gathered in a village hall to celebrate their reprieve from iron mining that has threatened their land and lifestyle for the past four years.
While some traditional leaders who had already received benefits from the prospecting supported the mining application, many in the community demanded a halt to all processes until they had been consulted properly in terms of their own custom and had agreed, if they did approve mining, to specific forms of compensation.
The company decided in January to withdraw an environmental authorisation application for two blocks of land in and near Makhasaneni, but the news only recently reached members of the community, who have fought the application since they heard about it in 2011.
“Mining is never development. If it is, then it is tsunami development because it comes with a lot of destruction. In fact, mining is a massive eviction project, not development,” said Reverend Mbhekiseni Mavuso, who has led the campaign to preserve existing lifestyles among the hills of Makhasaneni.
Jindal said in a statement that it withdrew its environmental application and halted prospecting because of market conditions. The company did not mention the accelerating community campaign against mining in the area.
“During the period 2013 to 2015 the iron price has steadily declined from $130 a tonne to $40 a tonne and the global oversupply and diminishing demand situation indicates that the iron ore price will remain in the $40 area for some time to come.
“Unfortunately at this uneconomic price and due to the current reluctance of international investors to support mining projects, it is necessary for Jindal to substantially reduce the development rate of the project for 2016 and review the situation in 2017,” the company said.
Mavuso said, however, he believed the social push-back had played a role.
Mavuso told researchers: “We forced Jindal into a memorandum of understanding with us as a committee. Our MOU had 16 points that we knew very well would be difficult for Jindal to uphold, which means we win the battle”.
Among other demands, the community wanted 80% of the workforce to come from the community. This was not achieved during prospecting and preparation, during which roads and work camps have been carved into the hills west of Melmoth.
In the North Block, prospecting has left parcels of land used by subsistence farmers poisoned and barren. Farmers report mysterious cattle deaths, which they suspect are caused by poisoned water.
The community attributes the victory also to their unity across a number of villages.
On Sunday speakers from different communities shared their own experiences of mining and of described how mining companies used gifts and promises of personal wealth to co-opt traditional leaders.
In Makhasaneni it has been slightly different as the village headman, Induna Dludla, was always on the side of the community.
Members of the Eastern Cape Amadiba Crisis Committee sang their trademark song – yonke lendawo imayini ayiphumelele (mining will never succeed everywhere) and described their ten-year battle to protect their own dunes from mining by an Australian company, Mineral Commodities (MRC).
The Amadiba heard last week that MRC had withdrawn from the licence process, citing opposition from that community and increasing violence as the primary reason. The withdrawal followed three months after the leader of the Xolobeni campaign, Bazooka Rhadebe, was assassinated outside his home by gunmen posing as police.
“We are here in Melmoth today to celebrate with the community because all the pain you have been going through is known to us. We have lost our chairperson who was shot dead earlier this year all because we are against mining,” said Xolobeni campaigner Lolo Dlamini.
Billy Mngqondo, provincial co-ordinator of Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA) and a mining activist from nearby Fuleni, said: “I doubt our traditional leaders will ever see the gates of heaven. They just sign off our ancestral land belonging to our forefathers very easily, without us being consulted.”
Mngqondo also thanked Induna Dludla for supporting the community throughout the battle. Induna Dludla is one of the longest serving Indunas at Entembeni Traditional Council. He has served under three different chiefs.
“It is always reported that activists are against traditional leadership and we are threatening to overthrow royal chiefs and their councils. How can that be possible when in our committee we have such an experienced Induna like Dludla?” asked Mavuso.
Mavuso said communities facing similar challenges should not rely on individuals to defend their democracy. It should rest on the whole community.
He said his community had decided to slaughter a cow to thank the ancestors for their vigilance and to celebrate because the Jindal withdrawal gave other communities hope where there was none, and courage where there was fear, as activists were threatened and at times killed.
The leader of the Somkhele community campaign for consultation on mining in their territory had his vehicle torched recently and is currently in hiding after successfully leading a march against the nearby mine.
Makhasaneni’s reprieve may be temporary. The company said it would maintain a small office in Melmoth and would monitor the prospects for iron mining in future. But global market conditions suggest it will be some years before mining Makhasaneni looks viable again.
Market analysts quoted by Creamer Media publications and websites in July unanimously predict that iron ore price will remain subdued for the foreseeable future, with a likely ceiling of $50 a tonne.
Macquarie Group and analyst Lara Smith of Core Consultants said the market remained over-supplied with major producers looking to scale back and cut costs rather than to expand iron ore production.
“This community has to celebrate this victory no matter the price of iron ore. We will face what comes with the rise in prices when we get to it,” said Kirsten Youens, an attorney working with Fuleni communities.
This article first appeared on Ground Up on 26 July 2016