AmaPondo take on dune raiders

Mzamo Dlamini is a lifetime resident of Pondoland. He was still in school when the Australian-based Mineral Resource Commodities applied for prospecting rights in 2004.

Mzamo Dlamini.

Back then people thought it was a good thing, he says, sitting outside a restaurant in Port Edward. This is the last town in KwaZulu-Natal, before the highway crosses the Mtamvuna River into Pondoland and heads away from the coastline. "We were told the mining would bring jobs and create economic development for our area."

Four years later, the community decided to form the Amadiba Crisis Committee to represent their views. Dlamini, an elected member of the committee's leadership, is the community's link with the media and environmental lawyers. Smartly dressed in a collared shirt, he constantly checks his cellphone and tablet and at one point climbs on to the back of a truck, searching for signal.

Without his voice, the only version of events coming out of the community is through the tribal leadership. The Xolobeni community claims the wider region's leaders have lied on their behalf, saying they are in favour of mining.

Dlamini says that, when community meetings are held to discuss the mining, people from unaffected villages are bused in, and their pro-mining voices drown out those of the Xolobeni villagers.

The leaders' role in the community
The stretch of coast that Mineral Resource Commodities wants to mine is 22km long and 1.5km wide. It stretches from just south of Port Edward at the Mzamba River to the Mtentu River.

The company says the area holds the 10th-largest heavy mineral deposit in the world. The ilmenite in the sand has high enough quantities of titanium – used in aircraft production – to make the mine viable for a quarter of a century.

Mining will dig up the thin strip of beach and farmland that comprises a Marine Protected Area. This small patch of the coast has the second- highest diversity of flora in South Africa. There are only 26 places in the world with such a rich concentration of species. Mineral Resource Commodities says it will remediate the area after it has finished mining.

Dlamini, pausing to think through his comments, says the power to choose whether the mining should happen should belong to the community. "Our traditional law says our leaders must represent the wishes of the community."

But this has not happened, he says. Instead, tricks are being played to convince the government to allow the mining because the people want it.

All photographs by Delwyn Verasamy, M&G

'This is our land'
The beaches next to a bar in Port Edward have shark nets and guards to keep tourists safe. The 200km stretch of coast to the north towards Durban is crowded with hotels and tourist towns. Going the other way, down the Wild Coast, there is no development. This is how Dlamini wants to keep it.

"This is our land. It is different, and we want to keep it that way."

The village of Xolobeni is likely to be the most affected by the mining, because it is on the coast. It is only 20km from Port Edward in a straight line, but it takes three hours of driving along ever-narrowing dirt roads to get there. Homes here have more space, and mealie crops and grazing lands provide sustenance for families. There is no industry except tourism, which locals say has been destroyed, so now the only option for jobs is mining.

One of the last remaining tourist ventures is the Mtentu River Lodge, at the southern end of the proposed mining area. It used to be the base for Amadiba Adventures and "adventure tourism" – hiking, kayaking, horseback trails – in the area. The area sees few tourists now "due to the intimidation from pro-mining factions in the area", according to the provincial tourism department.

The lodge is run by Russel Hartshorne, who says business is slowly picking up again, but nobody wants to invest. "With the mining hanging over the tourism here nobody wants to gamble with their money."

If the mining does go ahead he will be removed, like all the people living in rondavels along the strip of coast. "Even if the mining rights are granted, I would like to see someone move these people. The Pondo will fight for their land."

Community trusts
This kind of tourism features big in the provincial plans, with community trusts ensuring that money from these ecologically sound ventures goes to local people.

One of these, the Mkambati Land Trust, linked to its namesake game reserve just south of the proposed mining area, has plans to expand the reserve and create 500 jobs. This would inject R200-million into the area. These plans are in limbo because of the mining.

Amadiba Adventures was also in line for rapid growth, thanks to an agreement it was going to make with a private company, Wilderness Safaris. But Zamile Qunya, the chairperson of Amadiba, did not sign. What he did do was to start the Xolobeni Community Empowerment Company. Simply known as XolCo by locals, it is the black economic empowerment partner to the mining company. He is also one of the directors of Transkei Sun International and the Wild Coast Sun.

The locals would prefer to have the typically well-heeled tourists back. This is how the economy grows without environmental damage. The mine will only be in operation for 25 years.

The crisis committee held a public meeting in Xolobeni last week.

Nonhle Mbuthuma, a member of the committee, handed over her newborn baby to a family member when she spoke to be better able to express herself with her hands. She was a guide for Amadiba and said it was run into the ground so people would have to turn to mining for jobs.

'They destroyed the tourism'
"They destroyed the tourism. We would come back with guests who had paid deposits and there would be no food ordered. They knew word of mouth would destroy us."

The "they" are the members of XolCo. The company could not be contacted for comment.

As though this was not enough, the leadership of Pondoland is being contested.

In 2011, the Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims decided that Pondoland was being ruled by the wrong person, thanks to an incorrect decision made in the 1930s.

President Jacob Zuma accepted this finding and stripped Mpondombini Sigcau of his title and had Zanozuko Sigcau placed on the throne. Mpondombini opposed this and the fight went to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that Zuma had used the wrong piece of legislation to appoint Zanozuko and overturned the decision.

Mpondombini died before the ruling was handed down and now his wife is queen regent until an heir is chosen. The queen must remain in mourning for a year, so cannot make public appearances.

In Pondoland both the queen and Zanozuko still have power, and people are split by who they support.

The outcome of this leadership battle is important for both the proposed mining and the N2 toll road along the coast. Zanozuko has come out in support of both, whereas Mpondombini opposed them. In this part of Pondoland, further away from the old royal homestead near Flagstaff, some 160km from Port Edward, Zanozuko has more pull. He lives in a hotel there.

'Co-exist with environmentally responsible development'
This has left locals with their direct authority, Chief Lunga Baleni, to turn to. He oversees the area but has lesser chiefs below him. In amaPondo tradition he cannot make any decisions without them, or his council.

Dlamini says that in a meeting last year Baleni told everyone that "mining will not happen against the people's will". But the committee did its research on the internet – and found a picture of their chief at the recent Mining Indaba in Cape Town.

They also found a letter on the mine's website, which he had written in support of the mining, a week after he promised it would not happen. In it, Baleni says: "This project provides our community with a significant catalyst to extricate our community from its current cycle of poverty."

Baleni declined to comment this week.

In its 2012 annual report, the mine claims it has the support of the community. The report says that the project has the capacity to be "the catalyst for social transformation in one of South Africa's poorest communities". It notes the objections raised to the mining, but says, "of greater significance is the recent groundswell of support for the project".

This, it says, includes support from ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, who called on mayors and councillors in the Eastern Cape to support the granting of licences for mining.

Once the final impact studies are done, the mine will be able to show "beyond a doubt that mining can co-exist with environmentally responsible development".

New mining licence
Pictures of a smiling Zanozuko, and his branch of the royal family, are splashed across the mine's website. None of the original royal family feature.

Getting more exasperated as he talks, Dlamini says Chief Baleni has interfered in the new round of public participation that the mine is required to undertake before being granted a new mining licence.

"He has taken the keys from the tribal meeting halls, because he wants people to only come to his hall. This way he can tell MRC [the mining company] that people support the mine." This hall is 35km from the tar road.

The public consultation for the mine currently taking place is also riddled with faults, Dlamini says. Attendance registers are created after the fact, some using the names of dead people, and the minutes are edited to take out comments by people who do not support the mining.

In response, the crisis committee has approached the queen for help.

Dlamini's solution comes the next morning, when the queen's council arrives at the meeting hall in Xolobeni. The red earth of the sand dunes under application for the mining rights is visible one hill away from the red and white marquee, which has been set up for the influx of people. They come in dribs and drabs throughout the morning, negotiating paths that wind along the rocky countryside.

'Spillage of blood'
The crowd, many of the men dressed in overalls from Gauteng's mines, swells into the hundreds, with those arriving first getting to sit in the marquee's shade on black plastic chairs and wooden benches.

Over a four-hour session everyone says in their own way that they are worried about the way Chief Baleni is not representing their views, and is closing their meeting places.

The picture of him at the Mining Indaba is passed around, as well as his letter of support for the mining – for many this is the first time they have seen either, because there is no access to media besides the radio.

They cluster in small groups to shake their heads. When crisis committee member Mbuthuma gets up she explains how she thinks the chief stands to benefit from the mining.

There are nods as she speaks, and exclamations of "Ja, ja". Rapturous clapping follows.

When the queen's delegation leaves the marquee the temperature has dropped and the wind has picked up. She issues a press release the next day, condemning Chief Baleni for closing the tribal halls.

She says she was asked to intervene to "prevent the possibility of spillage of blood or loss of life".

Mining rights application
The closure of the tribal offices was "without just cause" and was "unauthorised". She has also invited the minerals department to come to educate people about their rights when it comes to mining, because it is her "unrelenting duty to protect the Wild Coast".    

If the queen cannot stop Baleni, the chief will have control over who gets to speak at the public consultation. The mining rights application will then only include the views of those who want the mining, and not those who say they are the most affected, but are not being listened to.

Andrew Lashbrooke, chief executive of MRC, was unable to respond to questions in time for the newspaper edition. But he was available for an interview later on about the allegations about mining: 

"I have read literally thousands of comments from people who registered as affected parties. This is the first time I have heard about the worries about dust," Lashbrooke said over the phone. 

"It is a fundamental aspect of any mining to be worried about environmental issues." The health of the community and of the company's workers on site were also linked to this, so it had to be looked after, he said. While mining would inevitably change the area, he believed it was a constant balance between environmental concerns and the economic development that would come with mining. 

"There will never be anybody living adjacent to a mining operation. We will have a buffer zone." According to him, these zones will also be placed around all rivers, wetlands and other vegetation that could be affected by the mining, ensuring they were not affected.

The real footprint of the mining would also be small, because the 22km would be mined out over the 25-year lifespan of the mine and not all at once. "It will be a fairly localised footprint," he said. But "the way of life will never be the same once we get there".

The remediation would be ensured because a mine had to give the mineral affairs department an "environmental bond" which was evaluated each year, and would cover remediation. This, along with the country's "wonderful environmental legislation" would "keep us [the mining company] in check".

He said opposing voices, which are "very well organised", were welcomed and given a platform to speak, and there was no evidence that there had been any fiddling with this process. "I have attended every public event and read every single comment. At least 80% are in favour of the project." 

The mining application was still to happen, so he had no idea when it might start. The decision rested with the minerals department. "There is a tough choice for the regulator to balance all of the interests and decide." 

If the mining company did get permission, the company would take every step to ensure there was minimal impact on the environment and people. It could then be a "game changer" for the area, where tourism would be on to small a scale to make that big an impact. "You have people in the area saying that for years their sons and daughters had to travel for jobs, now there will be development where they live."

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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