Gunmen terrorise villagers opposed to mining expansion

Sandile Motha for Mukurukuru Media

This week saw a temporary victory for a KwaZulu-Natal community after Tendele Coal Mining withdrew its urgent court action to remove villagers from land from which it wants to extract coal.

When Mzothule Biyela received a call from a neighbour to say there was a vehicle loaded with suspicious-looking men searching for him in the village he knew the threats of many months were not empty warnings.

Biyela is the latest anti-mining activist in northern KwaZulu-Natal to allegedly be targeted by gun-wielding assassins in what is believed to be an assault on community activists opposed to the forceful removal of families to make way for the expansion of mining activities under the Mpukunyoni Tribal Authority on the North Coast.

The expansion of the operations of Somkhele Coal Mine, owned by Tendele Coal Mining, is apparently at the centre of the drama playing out in the rural village of Ophondweni.

“For about three weeks, I had been receiving text messages from anonymous numbers warning me that my days were numbered,” Biyela told Mukurukuru Media this week. “I was told to immediately leave my homestead or risk death to me and my family.”

One threatening text on his phone read: “ikusasa lomphakathi nomnotho wethu ngeke uvinjwe uwe uwedwa (the future of the community, our wealth, cannot be derailed by you alone).”

After the warning call from his neighbour, said Biyela, unknown gunmen stormed his homestead in Ophondweni in search of the man they believed was instrumental in stoking resistance to evictions.

“About 20 minutes prior to them arriving, I received a call from one of my neighbours who said I should hide as there were men using a vehicle with a removed number plate looking for Mzo Biyela,” he said.

Chills ran down his spine. In a panic he alerted his wife who, in turn, took their 13-year-old and hid in a cattle kraal, taking cover beneath the livestock.

“The men, I saw about five of them first, stood at the gate and whispered to each other,” recalled Biyela. “They then scattered, surrounding the entire homestead. Among them, two heavily armed approached our living room and fired several shots inside the bedroom. They then kicked the door open and fired more shots before leaving.”

The ordeal lasted about 15 minutes. The family later spent the night in the kraal fearing the gunmen would return and then took refuge with relatives.

Biyela said the attempt on his life was part of an ongoing battle between various parties and Tendele Coal Mining, which planned to extend its operations to Ophondweni and eMahlahleni villages. The mining company denied there were tensions and said it was negotiating peacefully with the families concerned.

More than 400 families are in danger of being relocated from their ancestral land to allow for the extraction of coal from the area where their houses are built. Over the past three years, 24 families have remained united against the evictions.

The families, backed by social-justice organisations, have staged numerous peaceful demonstrations against being moved and have approached the courts on the matter. At the heart of their refusal to be relocated are fears of livelihoods being affected and ancestral graves being disturbed.

According to the local Mpukunyoni Traditional Council, the families must give written consent before the mining company can start preparations for the mining in the two villages.

“Our livestock are dying because of the dangerous chemicals emitted by the mine. There’s water pollution and the people are getting waterborne diseases because of the mine dust. This mining has brought untold human suffering and we want history to remember us as the people who fought in defence of their right of birth and to exist peacefully in the land of our ancestors. If it means we are killed in the process, so be it, but we will not go down without a fight,” Mthethwa told Mukurukuru Media.

 

Tendele complains that it has exhausted all its existing mineable anthracite deposits and needs to move to the villages immediately, saying this would save jobs and create additional employment opportunities for locals.

According to anti-mining activists, Tendele is one of the key suppliers of anthracite in the country and sells about 730,000 tons a year to local ferrochrome producers. The Somkhele coalfield has more than 50% of all open-pit mineable anthracite reserves in the country.

Tendele has been operating in the area since 2016, leading to community conflict and bloodshed as villagers divided into factions supporting mining and those opposing it.

Some villagers blame the Mpukunyoni Traditional Council for engaging in terror tactics by saying villagers who refuse to move will die.

Tholakele Mthethwa is one who has felt the wrath of her traditional leaders, who, she alleges, want her removed from the community.

“I’m viewed as a troublemaker because I’m part of the people who have strongly refused to be chucked out of our ancestral land,” said Mthethwa.

“In February this year, we were summoned to the traditional court and told we were standing in the way for community progress and were undermining the traditional leadership.

“They coerced the families to sign consent and compensation letters and told us in our face that if we didn’t do as instructed blood would be shed and it would be on our conscience. Many of us did not cede to the threats and we declined to sign.”

Mthethwa added that, shortly after the confrontation with the traditional leadership, she survived an attempt on her life.

“We were ambushed and attacked by unknown people who fired shots at my house,” she explained. “At the time I was with my daughter and granddaughter; we miraculously survived the attack unharmed. We were left shaken by this incident and I have made contact with police that, should I die, my blood would be on the hands of the traditional leadership.”

Mthethwa says mining in the area has ruined her people’s way of life. The villagers rely on small-scale farming, but this has been ruined by water pollution and soil erosion.

“Our livestock are dying because of the dangerous chemicals emitted by the mine. There’s water pollution and the people are getting waterborne diseases because of the mine dust. This mining has brought untold human suffering and we want history to remember us as the people who fought in defence of their right of birth and to exist peacefully in the land of our ancestors. If it means we are killed in the process, so be it, but we will not go down without a fight,” Mthethwa told Mukurukuru Media.

She alleged that a “hit list” was circulating, containing names of people who were seen to have influence within the community.

Meanwhile, Induna Msawenkosi Mkhwanazi, speaking on behalf of the Mpukunyoni authority, disputed claims that traditional leaders were in cahoots with Tendele Mining and hounding villagers off their land.

“The genuine owners of the land have agreed to the agreed compensation and their relocation,” said Mkhwanazi in defence of Tendele Mining. “More than 360 families have signed the consent agreements; only a few people have declined. They are working with outsiders to destabilise this community. We can’t allow the mine to stop operations because of these few individuals because many people are employed by the mine and would lose their source of income.”

In May, Tendele lodged an urgent court application to compel the villagers to vacate the area earmarked for mining. The matter was set for last week at the Pietermaritzburg High Court but the mine made a sudden U-turn after the lawyers representing the aggrieved residents prepared answering affidavits in support of the villagers’ claim to the land.

Richard Spoor of Richard Spoor Inc, one of the law firms representing the distressed community, said the mining company withdrew its action at the last minute.

“We served unsigned papers on the wee hours of Friday 12 June, after sleepless nights. We later learned that Tendele no longer wanted to argue the matter in court,” said Spoor.

Nqobile Gwala, KwaZulu-Natal provincial police spokesperson, said police were investigating various cases of attempted murder and intimidation reported under the Mpukunyoni Traditional Authority, but said these were being treated as normal cases of criminality.

“We cannot say whether the incidents are related to anti-mining or not,” she said.

This article was first published in Mukurukuru Media.

This article appeared in Daily Maverick on 25 June 2020.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.customcontested.co.za/gunmen-terrorise-villagers-opposed-to-mining-expansion/

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