A Threat More Deadly than Covid-19

Bullet holes in the upper left of window.

Keeping safe against Covid-19 is a challenge in Somkhele, where lack of water is a serious issue, but how do you protect yourself against a hail of bullets through your kitchen and bedroom windows after dark where your children are in bed asleep? 

On Friday, 24 April 2020, a grandmother and her family in Ophondweni were the target of a terrifying barrage of bullets that pounded the walls of their home and came flying through the windows. Ophondweni is one of the villages earmarked for relocations by Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd to make way for their open cast coal mining operations. No injuries were reported but 19 cartridges were found at the scene.

Exactly a week before, on the evening of Friday, 17th April 2020, two armed gunmen entered the home of Sabelo Dladla, a young leader with the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) that is challenging the expansion of Tendele coal mine. The gunmen asked if he was Sabelo. He told them he was not and that Sabelo was away. They then tied him up and assaulted him before entering his widowed mother’s bedroom. When they asked her and Sabelo’s young niece where Sabelo was, they also said he was away. The gunmen then searched the house for valuables and took mobile phones and binoculars. They also demanded whatever money the family had. Then they left. A case of armed robbery was opened with the KwaMsane Police Station. No arrests have been made. Sabelo and his family have had to go into hiding. This is not the first time Sabelo has had to flee for his life.

These violent attacks did not come without warning. Early in April a Mr Msweli, who has links with Ophondweni’s pro-mining traditional leader, visited the homestead that was attacked as well as other Ophondweni residents, and warned that shooting would take place in Ophondweni against people resisting relocation by Tendele coal mine. The community refuses to accept the meagre compensation the mine has paid to Somkhele residents in the past and are refusing to make way for the mine. Tendele has been challenged for negotiating with individual households, resulting in improper consultations, and inadequate and unequal compensation that leaves relocated rural farmers landless and worse off than before. This contributes to poverty and social unrest.

Most recently, on 6 May, another person who had received a threatening visit from Mr Msweli, received this anonymous message stating that the attackers want the Ophondweni residents to be relocated “so that we can go back to work as we are being retrenched  from the mine. If you are stubborn, we are going to shoot all the breadwinners we want who are working so that we all starve. Don’t forget we know all of them and where they are working.” 

Mr Msweli indicated that the gunmen are employees of the mine who do not want to lose their jobs and a few Ophondweni residents hoping to be employed by the mine when it expands. So, the conflict in Somkhele is no longer about jobs versus livelihoods but has escalated to jobs versus lives. This mindset has been fomented by the government’s obsession with coal mining and mining jobs regardless of the devastating consequences left in the wake of this polluting industry rapidly headed for obsolescence. 

GET trustee, Sifiso Dladla, who has been working with the Somkhele community and the mining sector since 2011, observes: “Not only does mining rip the earth apart but it also rips communities apart. Not only do these acts of violence and armed break-ins rob people of belongings and their sense of safety and security but they leave behind traumatic memories, deep-seated fears and long-lasting scars.” 

All these attacks, threats and intimidation have been reported to the relevant regional DMR officials who do not respond. It has landed with Mary de Haas, the Violence Monitor for KZN, to intervene. Early in April she wrote to the KwaMsane and Mtubatuba SAPS alerting them to the likelihood of violence in Ophondweni and asking for regular patrols. Again, after the shooting in Ophondweni, she phoned the police. There appears to be little interest on the part of the police to protect citizens whose lives are on the line. For their part, Ophondweni residents do not trust the police and see little point in reporting threats and attacks to the police. No arrests of the perpetrators have been made and the intimidation and violence directed towards Somkhele residents is allowed to continue.

Conflict between the residents of Somkhele and the mine dates back to 2004, with the first wave of relocations taking place around this time. When Tendele took over the mine, in 2007, tensions intensified and a renewed wave of social unrest ensued, especially with the granting of the amended 222km2 mining right in 2016 by the DMR, giving way to the expansion of mining operations in Somkhele. The mine is relentlessly consuming land that supported hundreds of rural farmers as well as areas of high biodiversity bordering the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park (HiP). 

Members of MCEJO, particularly those within the contested 222km2 mining lease area, have good reason to fear for their lives. MCEJO currently has two court cases against Tendele Coal mine, the Minister of Mineral and Energy and nine others – one in the Supreme Court of Appeal and another in the North Gauteng High Court.  

The current national lock-down makes these activist communities easy targets. Not only are their lives at constant risk but the national lockdown significantly brings their vulnerability into sharp focus. The process of trying to get Sabelo Dladla and his family into hiding in order to protect their lives was particularly difficult with no active transport system operating and the lockdown restrictions on movement.  

Despite all these challenges, MCEJO members are resolved to stand firm in their support for those who are being targeted and are particularly vulnerable at this time. We will continue to call on the government and its agencies, in particular the police and the Department of Mineral Resources, to execute their duties to protect citizens of this country. The same attention and concern that is being focussed on containing Covid-19 must be given to other threats to human life. 

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