We will die for our land, say angry Xolobeni villagers as dune mining looms

A community member of Xolobeni exclaims that she will not allow mining in her area to celebration of her neighbours. (Paul Botes, M&G)

A community member of Xolobeni exclaims that she will not allow mining in her area to celebration of her neighbours. (Paul Botes, M&G)

As leaders clash and government weighs an application for mining on the Wild Coast, anti-mining locals report a fresh outbreak of violence.

Christmas 2015 was a far from festive period for Kaizana Mbele* and his heavily pregnant wife. After repeated incidents of violence and intimidation in their remote Wild Coast village of Mdatya in late December, they ran for their lives.

Delivered by Kaizana himself, the baby was born on January 1 in a nearby forest. “My wife had complications and the baby is not doing well,” he told amaBhungane.

The terror spree started on December 19 when armed men parked their car away from the village, turned off the lights and came looking for the headwoman, Cynthia Duduzile Baleni. After failing to find her, they fired volleys into the air and drove away. The next night they returned and repeated the performance.

Eight days later, three villagers were ambushed by men wielding knobkerries and bush knives. One suffered a broken arm and a deep gash to the head; another was admitted to hospital with a broken leg.

Then, between midnight and 2am on December 30, an armed group went from house to house banging on doors, calling for certain individuals and firing guns.

Fear still reigns: a month later some villagers and their children continue to sleep in the forest or the nearby mealie fields.

The man spearheading the push for mining in Xolobeni, Zamile Qunya, said claims that most Amadiba residents are against mining are subjective, emotive and baseless, and have been disproved by a public participation process.The documentary, produced by Odette Geldenhuys and Ryley Grunenwald, can be viewed at theshorebreakmovie.com

“Yes, there is some opposition, but the majority of Xolobeni community support mining,” he said.

“That is recorded in the public participation process. The rest is emotive hearsay by self-interested, external anti-mining lobbyists who oppose the project on environmental grounds, but who offer no alternative and seem to want to condemn the Amadiba Pondoland to lack of development.”

Qunya said at least 10 families have voluntarily moved from the proposed mining area because of underdevelopment.

“There is no running water, no transport, schools or clinics. People there are not yet civilised. They still follow old traditions like polygamy. People are dying from HIV and Aids; they have no information. If our people are not educated there will be no change.”

Qunya said neither he nor any of the companies linked to him condones violence.  The same applies to Lunga Baleni, the chief of the Amadiba Tribal Authority, which covers the uMgungundlovu tribal area – the epicentre of resistance to the proposed mining.

Qunya said the chief was chosen by the tribal council to be the lawful custodian of the Xolobeni Empowerment Company’s 26% empowerment shareholding in the Australian-owned company that seeks to mine in the area. He said the December violence was related to a dispute over a municipal ward that the leader of the anti-mining Amadiba Crisis Committee, Nonhle Mbuthuma, wanted to contest. Mbuthuma described this as “a lie”.


”... they are poor and they do not wear shoes”


Qunya accused the committee of confusing people by telling them that mining is “bad for the community” and of “causing chaos so that they get more funding”. “If there are no donors involved, how come they can afford a lawyer like Richard Spoor?”

Asked why the turnout for the January 22 imbizo was so large if the residents were happy with mining, he put this down to intimidation on the committee’s part.

He said the participants seen by amaBhungane were “civilised”, “but the rest of the village are not; they are poor and they do not wear shoes”. He said Xolobeni is far from the area where mining would take place and that no prospecting would occur where people are living.

“Scientifically, it is wrong to say people will be moved. The environmental impact assessment [EIA] will determine this. When we came up with the idea of mining, no one was settling in that area. According to legislation passed during Bantu Holomisa’s time [as Transkei leader], we must not build houses within one kilometre of the coast.”

Asked why Xolobeni residents were moved to work at the West Coast operation of MSR Tormin, of which he is a director, he said the relocated workers are benefiting from learnerships.

“I took 33, but my target is 50 people. They are trainees in laboratories, the separation plant and mining. We must be equipped with skilled people from Xolobeni when mining starts.”

Qunya said the EIA is under way and is due for submission in about April.


“Amandla! Ngawethu”


Behind the violent outbreak lies a decade-long battle over whether dune mining should take place on this ecologically sensitive stretch of coastline.

Baleni has been the ceremonial mouthpiece for the anti-mining resolutions of five coastal villages most affected by the Xolobeni Mineral Sands project. The ambush victims were allegedly leading anti-mining activists.

Reacting to the violence, the Pondo queen, MaSobhuza Sigcau, called an imbizo at Komkhulu (the Great Place) last month. About 500 people from the Amadiba region, which includes the Xolobeni, Mdatya, Mtolani and Sigidi villages, attended the gathering, which amaBhungane witnessed.

The politically charged atmosphere was clear – before the imbizo started, women led a struggle song, Noma kubi siyaya: No matter how hard it is/ We will succeed. Then came the chant and response: “Amandla! Ngawethu [Power is ours]!”

Most had walked many kilometres to attend the meeting, which took place in the open because the hall could not hold them all. The elderly and middle-aged outnumbered the young people in attendance; chairing the meeting was the 75-year-old Mdatya leader, Zadla Dlamini.

Metres away lay the Wild Coast. The slope to the sea is forested with wild fruit trees; fields of green mealies fill the valleys.


These gangsters used to be good children before they were offered money”


The women seemed to be at the forefront of the anti-mining campaign; whenever one spoke, the crowd clapped and ululated.

The speeches were angry. Said one of the elders: “These gangsters used to be good children before they were offered money.” Another added: “They will kill us first before they start mining. We are Pondo; we are prepared to die for our land. Even in the past, our ancestors chose land and ignored a bag of money they had been offered for this same land.”

A woman said: “My tears won’t fall on the ground for nothing. You can bring your machine guns. I am prepared to die for my land; I am not going anywhere.”

Afterwards, the older residents eagerly gathered to talk to Amadiba Crisis Committee secretary Nonhle Mbuthuma. Not a single voice spoke up for dune mining at Xolobeni.

Mbuthuma said the police were invited to the imbizo but failed to appear. Instead, at 4am the previous night they launched the largest operation in local memory, raiding two villages for firearms.

Villagers told the imbizo that the police officers barged into their houses without warrants but failed to find guns or other dangerous weapons.

It is an allegation that Brigadier Mtutuzeli Mtukushe, cluster commander of the stations in Mbizana, Ntabankulu and Mount Ayliff, denies. “One firearm with ammunition was found and some dangerous weapons. We also found lots of dagga plants.” The raids were a routine crime prevention operation and warrants were used, he said.

He insisted police do not take sides in local quarrels, because it is difficult to separate victim from perpetrator.


”... try to prevent further violence”


In one respect police action has met with the crisis committee’s approval – four men, Xolile Dimane, Thembile Ndovela, Mdlele Bhele and Mto Bhele, were arrested and charged with attempted murder in connection with the December violence.

Anti-mining activists claim that two of the most prominent local mining advocates, Zamile Qunya and Amadiba chief Lunga Baleni, appeared at the police station an hour after the arrests in a bid to bail out the suspects.

Qunya is the founder of the Xolobeni Empowerment Company (Xolco), the empowerment partner of Australia-owned Mineral Commodities (MRC), which is pushing for mining on the Wild Coast. Baleni became one of Xolco’s directors in 2014.

Qunya is a director of MRC’s other South African operator, Tormin, the controversy-plagued dune mining operation on the West Coast.

The Amadiba Crisis Committee considers it significant that one of the suspects, Dimane, was a Xolobeni man employed at Tormin who had returned home to the Eastern Cape for the Christmas holidays.

Qunya denied organising bail for the suspects, saying that he went to the police station “to gain an understanding of what had happened and to try to prevent further violence”.

He also said he had no connection with Dimane other than the latter being a Tormin employee.


”... the sense of the place”


Conflict over mining in what has become known as Xolobeni – the most mineral-rich of the five planned mining blocks – has been smouldering for at least 10 years and periodically bursts into flames.

The sequence of events has been extensively reported: the grant of an old-order prospecting licence in 2002; the launch of Xolco in 2003; the escalation of residents’ suspicion into outright rejection and sabotage in 2006 and 2007; the granting of a full mining licence by then-minerals minister Buyelwa Sonjica in 2008; the suspension of the licence four months later after locals confronted the minister at a company-sponsored celebration; and the withdrawal of the licence in 2011 after residents lodged an appeal.

With the ups and downs of the permit process has come outbreaks of violence and deaths that residents perceive as suspicious (see “A history of violence amid shifting sands” below).

In March last year, the company applied for a new permit to mine all five blocks. The application is still pending – residents who are against the mining have blocked the required environmental impact assessment.

Much is at stake: the Xolobeni operation, with a lifespan of more than 20 years, promises to be richer and longer-lasting than its West Coast counterpart.

The lease area is sizeable – 22km long and 1.5km wide, covering 2 867 hectares. It is estimated to contain 139-million tonnes of titanium-bearing minerals, including ilmenite, zircon, leucoxene and rutile, mainly used in pigment manufacture.

The envisaged $200-million capital investment would include the construction of a mineral separation plant and smelter, and up to 300 permanent jobs would be created.

But an Eastern Cape government study from the mid-2000s raised questions about the environmental hazards.

Water requirements would be high and there was no firm plan to address security of supply, it said, and company documents made little mention of the planned tailings dam and its “significant” impact.

Other concerns were the possible relocation of homesteads, the effect on estuaries, increased road traffic and the effect on “the sense of place”.

The report concludes by asking: Is tourism a more viable alternative?


They will mine around people’s houses. Also, this is a proclaimed marine protected area ...”


The company insists no one will be uprooted; the action committee dis-agrees. According to committee secretary Mbuthuma, about 200 households face displacement and the farmland on which villagers depend will be devastated.

She added that it is unclear how villagers would be compensated and where they and their livestock would move.

“They will mine around people’s houses. Also, this is a proclaimed marine protected area – mining cannot take place here.”

The anti-mining activists believe that ecotourism and agriculture are viable alternatives and that mining would rule out a tourism trade.

Significantly, of the 25 or more conditions set by the minerals department during last year’s scoping exercise, 18 relate to water use. The requirements include a permit from the water affairs department to draw water from estuaries and a full-blown hydrological study.

Mbuthuma said the national department seemed to have turned a deaf ear to the community’s pleas. She said that, during a visit to Komkhulu in July last year, a senior departmental official said that “mining must occur where there are minerals”.

“We told him we are prepared to go to court to defend our rights. Section 24 of the Constitution gives us the right to a safe environment and sustainable economic development.”


It is Xolobeni today and tomorrow somewhere else ...”


There are other signs that the sands project enjoys official favour. The mineral resources department has approved the company’s scoping report for the latest permit application. And the local municipality, Bizana, is moving to rezone the coastal area from conservation to mining in its development plan.

Traditional politics form a background, including a tug-of-war between the pro-mining chief Baleni and his anti-mining subordinate, headwoman Baleni.

Local leaders said that, twice last year, the chief tried to dismiss her and shut down the coastal traditional authority, demanding that she return the keys of the meeting hall. The villagers are said to have blocked the move.

The action committee’s Mbuthuma claimed the chief was a strong opponent of mining until he was made a director of Xolco, which holds a 26% share in the sands project. She said the mining group expected Baleni to use his position to persuade residents to support the mining.

Baleni, who now lives in Port Edward, initially agreed to an interview on January 20.

On the day, his spokesperson said the chief was no longer allowed to speak to the media and could not meet amaBhungane as they were en route to East London.

The rift reaches further up the traditional hierarchy. Villagers say they do not recognise Zanozuko Sigcau as Pondo king because he was “imposed” by the Eastern Cape government and supports mining. But they have some powerful backers, including Queen MaSobhuza and Crown Princess Wezizwe Sigcau.

The princess told amaBhungane: “This is not just a Xolobeni or Amadiba battle – it is a Pondoland battle. It is Xolobeni today and tomorrow somewhere else, and we are going to put a stop to it.

“We’re mobilising chiefs and village heads to sensitise them before the Xolobeni land problem spreads.”


When shall this stupidity stop?”


Many Xolobeni residents insist that, because they have land, they are not poor and do not need mining to develop the area.

The view is summed up in an angry action committee statement in response to South African National Roads Agency claims, in support of Wild Coast highway development, that Xolobeni is one of South Africa’s poorest regions: “When shall this stupidity stop? How can we be poor when we have land? We grow maize, sweet potatoes, taro, potatoes, onions, spinach, carrots, lemons and guavas, and we sell some of it to the market. We eat fish, eggs and chicken. This agriculture is what should be developed here.

“It is not falling apart like in many other places in Eastern Cape. We have cattle for weddings and traditional rituals. We have goats for ceremonies. We are not a part of the ‘one out of four South Africans who go hungry to bed’. We have a life. Poor infrastructure is not poverty.”

Struggle is built into the Pondo DNA. Typifying the defiant outlook of anti-mining villagers was Mthandeni Dlamini (23), who comes from a household of seven and walked 10km to attend the imbizo.

Land and livestock are very important to him and his siblings, as their sole inheritance when their parents died in 2013.

“I am a black man, fourth generation of the Pondo tribe; my umbilical cord is here. For 23 years the only life I know is here in Amadiba,” Dlamini said. “I feel the land belongs to me.

“It should not be assumed because I am new-generation, I want to change my way of life. Traditional healers from the area use the trees to cure our ailments; we have cemeteries at home where we worship our ancestors.

“I enjoy walking on the coast. I need fresh air and we have tourism going on here. But it is always about whites – they want to drive us out like stray dogs. If we bark we’re told to shut up, go away.

“But our minds are always regarded as black; no one wants to hear our voices. The white-owned mining company wants to drive us away from the coast. But today I’m declaring: there won’t be mining in Xolobeni or any other section of Amadiba.”


A history of violence amid shifting sands


The December outbreak was not the first violent episode that villagers perceive to be associated with plans to mine the dunes at Xolobeni, though the evidence is flimsy in some cases and contested in others. Incidents include:

  • In 2003 Mandoda Ndovela, a headman from the Wild Coast village of Mpindweni, was shot dead, allegedly after criticising proposed Xolobeni dune mining at a meeting at the Pondo king’s “Great Place” outside Lusikisiki. Police found no evidence connecting his murder to the mining proposal, though the case is still being investigated.
  • In June 2007 anti-mining leader Scorpion Dimane publicly rejected the Xolobeni Mineral Sands project, allegedly after a sponsored trip to see dune mining in action in Richards Bay. On January 1 2008 Dimane died of what his death certificate listed as a middle-ear infection. Despite this innocent explanation, his death sparked fear and suspicion among anti-mining activists.
  • In August 2007 Zamokwakhe Qunya, the brother of Xolobeni Empowerment Company founder Zamile Qunya, allegedly blocked social worker John Clarke and others on the road to Xolobeni to prevent them meeting Belgian tourists. Clarke, who claims a death threat was made, laid charges of intimidation with the police and Qunya appeared in court. The case was ultimately dropped.
  • In September 2008 pupils at the Xolobeni Junior Secondary School were reportedly sjambokked by police after refusing to sing at an event organised to celebrate the granting of mining rights, according to Clarke. He reported the incident to the police’s Independent Complaints Directorate, the office of the president and four Cabinet ministers. It is not clear what happened to the complaint.
  • In April 2015 mine employees travelling in a convoy through Mtentu village to reach one of the prospecting areas were allegedly stopped by a blockade. Villagers said random firing followed and some people were beaten with pistol butts, allegedly by members of the convoy. A bullet is said to have grazed the head of a resident.
  • In May 2015 an elderly woman was beaten with a knobkerrie and hacked with a bush knife, and nocturnal shots caused a woman to flee from her home and hide in a river gorge with her twin babies. Zamokwakhe Qunya was cited as an aggressor in a successful application for a temporary high court interdict against continued assaults and intimidation. The interdict was ultimately withdrawn by agreement.

Mining will be a boon, says empowerment partner


The man spearheading the push for mining in Xolobeni, Zamile Qunya, said claims that most Amadiba residents are against mining are subjective, emotive and baseless, and have been disproved by a public participation process.

“Yes, there is some opposition, but the majority of Xolobeni community support mining,” he said.

“That is recorded in the public participation process. The rest is emotive hearsay by self-interested, external anti-mining lobbyists who oppose the project on environmental grounds, but who offer no alternative and seem to want to condemn the Amadiba Pondoland to lack of development.”

Qunya said at least 10 families have voluntarily moved from the proposed mining area because of underdevelopment.

“There is no running water, no transport, schools or clinics. People there are not yet civilised. They still follow old traditions like polygamy. People are dying from HIV and Aids; they have no information. If our people are not educated there will be no change.”

Qunya said neither he nor any of the companies linked to him condones violence.  The same applies to Lunga Baleni, the chief of the Amadiba Tribal Authority, which covers the uMgungundlovu tribal area – the epicentre of resistance to the proposed mining.

Qunya said the chief was chosen by the tribal council to be the lawful custodian of the Xolobeni Empowerment Company’s 26% empowerment shareholding in the Australian-owned company that seeks to mine in the area. He said the December violence was related to a dispute over a municipal ward that the leader of the anti-mining Amadiba Crisis Committee, Nonhle Mbuthuma, wanted to contest. Mbuthuma described this as “a lie”.

Qunya accused the committee of confusing people by telling them that mining is “bad for the community” and of “causing chaos so that they get more funding”. “If there are no donors involved, how come they can afford a lawyer like Richard Spoor?”

Asked why the turnout for the January 22 imbizo was so large if the residents were happy with mining, he put this down to intimidation on the committee’s part.

He said the participants seen by amaBhungane were “civilised”, “but the rest of the village are not; they are poor and they do not wear shoes”. He said Xolobeni is far from the area where mining would take place and that no prospecting would occur where people are living.

“Scientifically, it is wrong to say people will be moved. The environmental impact assessment [EIA] will determine this. When we came up with the idea of mining, no one was settling in that area. According to legislation passed during Bantu Holomisa’s time [as Transkei leader], we must not build houses within one kilometre of the coast.”

Asked why Xolobeni residents were moved to work at the West Coast operation of MSR Tormin, of which he is a director, he said the relocated workers are benefiting from learnerships.

“I took 33, but my target is 50 people. They are trainees in laboratories, the separation plant and mining. We must be equipped with skilled people from Xolobeni when mining starts.”

Qunya said the EIA is under way and is due for submission in about April.

* Name changed because the person feared reprisals

* Got a tip-off for us about this story? Click here.

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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