Tribute to Mr Jeremiya  Bhekinkosi Makhoba (9 March 1939 to 25 June 2023)

The death of 84-year-old Mr Jeremiya Bhekinkosi Makhoba on 25 June 2023 brings with it a distinct sadness. Instead of living the last few years of his life enjoying the peace and tranquillity of his rural homestead in the farming community of Ophondweni, sitting under his favourite guava tree outside his front door, he spent four traumatising years being harassed by Tendele coal mine to relinquish his family land to make way for the expansion of the mine. 

Mr Makhoba was a highly regarded and respected elder of the community and one of the first people in Ophondweni to become a member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO). He leaves behind his elderly wife, their five children, numerous grandchildren, extended family, and grieving community and MCEJO members. 

Mr Makhoba’s funeral on Thursday, 29 June 2023, was well attended, despite being held in the middle of the week to accommodate a family wedding. There were representatives from several neighbouring villages as well as family members from Newcastle. People who spoke at the funeral paid tribute to his humility, his dedication to his family and to the community at large and to his deep Christian values. 

An indication of Mr Makhoba’s stature and esteem is that his funeral brought together people from opposite sides of the deeply divided Ophondweni community. It is common knowledge that Mr Makhoba and his wife stood firm against being moved off their land by Tendele mine, yet, numbered amongst the mourners were residents who have agreed to be relocated. 

In 2020, the Ophondweni community was ripped apart by two shattering events. First, on 24 April, there was a drive-by shooting into Mama Tholakele Mthethwa’s home late at night  when 19 bullets were fired through her kitchen and bedroom windows, narrowly missing family members, including her 2-year old granddaughter. Then, 6-months later, there was the murder of 63-year-old Fikile Ntshangase, on 22 October 2022, when three men walked into her home at dusk and fired six bullets into her body. Both women were vocal in their opposition to Tendele mine’s proposed expansion into Ophondweni.

The process of relocation is unprecedented in Ophondweni. It is something new. To know more about what was happening, community members, like Mr and Mrs Makhoba, joined MCEJO where they learned what the law says about moving people and their rights as residents living on tribal land. One younger MCEJO member said he realised they were on the right track if a respected elder like Mr Makhoba had joined the organisation. 

At the funeral Mr Makhoba was compared to Naboth  in the Bible, in 1 Kings Chapter 21, who was approached by king Ahab of Samaria to give him his vineyard so that the king could have a vegetable garden near his house. He offered Naboth a better vineyard or, if Naboth preferred, the king would give him its worth in money. Naboth replies: “The Lord forbids me to give the heritance of my fathers to you.” Like the Israelites, the Zulu people believe that their land is their heritage from their ancestors that has been entrusted to them. Their land can never be sold but must be passed on from one generation to the next. 

Mr Makhoba’s firm stand took great courage. In May 2020, he was identified as one of two people in Ophondweni urgently in need of trauma counselling. He was 81 years old at the time. He had become highly anxious after the shooting at Mama Mthethwa’s home close to his homestead. This was followed shortly thereafter by a 468-page summons by Tendele in English to appear in court, delivered to his home by  the Sheriff of the Court during the Covid hard lockdown. This was a contemptible attempt by Tendele to harass Ophondweni residents into vacating their land. 

During the first trauma counselling session, Mr Makhoba was very distressed and spoke about his fear and anxiety since Tendele mine moved into Ophondweni and mine representatives started coming to people’s homes, often at night, to try to force them to sign relocation “agreements”. His voice was trembling with emotion, and he was close to tears when he described receiving the thick summons in English and his fear of going to the High Court in Pietermaritzburg and the terrifying prospect of having to appear personally in court and speak to a judge. Residents had to deal with these onslaughts without any understanding of what was happening or the opportunity to receive support from All Rise, MCEJO’s lawyers at the time. Fortunately, Richard Spoor Incorporated at the request of All Rise challenged Tendele’s actions in court, which alleviated much of Mr Makhoba’s fear and anxiety and Tendele withdrew the matter. 

Despite being old and fearful, Baba and Mama Makhoba stood firm against the relentless onslaughts by Tendele to try to force them to sign away their land. We pay tribute to his courage and strength when he felt weak and uncertain. This is true courage.

Condolences to family, friends, MCEJO members and the Ophondweni community. May his soul and body rest in peace and may God who he commended his life to as a committed Christian welcome him into the heavenly fold.

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